It's hard to believe that we're already in the era of post-pandemic flashbacks, but there I was binging a season of The Morning Show, and found myself reliving those dark days through characters wearing face masks, compulsively sanitizing hands, and maintaining social distancing. I reflected on the state of organizational culture when the pandemic began and how much we’ve changed since then. While it might feel too soon to search for silver linings, the pandemic compelled companies to acknowledge the inseparable link between employee wellness and workplace performance.
In just two short years, employee mental health support benefits went from professional luxury to a minimum benefits standard. A recent survey of 2,500 American employees reveals that 65% of Millennial and Gen Z workers prioritize wellness benefits when making employment decisions. They’re not just seeking access to mental health services; they want barriers to accessing these services eliminated. Younger generations now expect mental health insurance coverage, both in-person and virtual, along with ample mental and physical health leave, mindfulness and wellness resources, and financial planning services as part of their baseline benefits.
To retain talent and entice employees back to the office, companies are leaning into offering comprehensive wellness services that cater to holistic employee needs. Financial wellness programs, on-site health clinics, and even healthy meal prep services from the cafeteria have become the new incentives designed to attract younger employees reluctant to leave their home workspaces for traditional cubicles. Leave policies are also evolving to reflect a commitment to overall employee wellbeing, encompassing reproductive loss leave, menopausal leave, and expanded bereavement leave to cover the loss of a beloved pet. These modern wellness programs and leave policies underscore the vital importance of fostering a nurturing, supportive and empathetic work culture that genuinely cares about employee wellbeing.
While employers face pressure to add a wide range of supplementary benefits to compete for top talent, managers are faced with a new demand to connect employees to the growing list of available benefits that cater to their individual needs. Leaders are expected to expand already unprecedentedly high leadership expectations to include becoming organizational case workers, often without the education and support to do so effectively. We expect them to elevate team performance by attending to the overall health and wellbeing of each member, and also shackle them with limited bandwidth, training and support to meet these evolving leadership demands. It’s no wonder the leaders of today are confused about the competency requirements, boundaries and expectations of modern leadership.
Most leaders we talk to want to evolve their leadership competencies to include a more holistic and empathetic approach to overall wellness, but don’t know where to start. In this article, we equip leaders with targeted strategies to support employee wellbeing, helping them to connect employees with the services necessary for peak performance and cultivate a working culture focused on overall employee wellness.
Four Basic Wellness Strategies for Busy Leaders
Destigmatize Wellbeing Discussions
One of the primary barriers to addressing mental health concerns in the workplace is the stigma associated with these issues. Although many of us would like to follow the old adage of keeping work at work and home at home is long gone, we still have a long way to go to create safe environments where employees feel safe discussing their mental health without fear of judgment. Leaders should lead by example and openly discuss their own experiences with mental health, show vulnerability, and normalize wellbeing conversations. Moreover, leaders can incorporate mental health discussions into regular team meetings and training sessions, allowing employees to become more familiar with the topic and reducing the stigma surrounding it.
Life factors that could mean it's time to check in with an employee
👉🏻 Financial Insecurity (layoffs, decreased purchasing power, inflation)
👉🏻 Living Situation (remote work loneliness or in-person tension at home)
👉🏻 Work Setting (toxic culture, conflict, change fatigue)
👉🏻 Physical Health (personal and loved ones)
👉🏻 Life Stage Demands (young children, elderly parents, retirement)
Be Curious and Ask Questions
Although the majority of Boomers and most of Gen X can remember a time when it was inappropriate to discuss personal lives at work, younger generations expect leaders to demonstrate care and concern about their wellbeing. Instead of tiptoeing around the issue with vague questions like, “How are you doing?” and “Is everything alright?” leaders should ask direct, specific, open-ended questions about mental wellness, particularly when changes in behavior, attitude and energy level are observed. Saying things like, “I’ve noticed a change, and I want to check in with you on your mental health. What can I do to support you?” or “I’m certainly feeling much more anxiety and stress lately, so I want to check in with you to see if you are having a similar experience.” demonstrates genuine caring and opens the door for more dialog about mental health.
Behavioral signs that could mean it's time to check in with an employee
👉🏻 prevailing sad mood or seeming down
👉🏻 changes in engagement or loss of interest in enjoyable tasks
👉🏻 increased fatigue and/or changes in sleep
👉🏻 changes in appetite
👉🏻 diminished concentration
Connect to Resources
Educating themselves on the current benefits, programs and support services offered by their organization is one of the best things a wellness-conscious leader can do. Somewhere between 50% and 85% of employees are unclear about the health and wellness benefits available, and the more programs an organization offers, the more likely they are to get lost in the noise of daily work. Managers (not HR) are in the best position to identify candidates for support services and connect them with the resources available to meet overall wellness needs, yet they cannot do so effectively if they don’t know what they are. Leaders serve their employees best when they stay up to date on the latest benefits within their organization, so meet periodically with Carol in HR and pay attention when new programs are announced. Also, keep an updated list of employee benefits handy – there’s nothing like needing immediate access to resources and having to scour old emails to find them.
Get Certified in Mental Health First Aid
We never question CPR training at work designed to save a life, yet we are slow to embrace similar life-saving training when it comes to mental health. Mental Health First Aid Training helps employees to recognize signs of mental distress and substance use disorders, provide immediate assistance, know when to refer someone to a mental health professional and how to connect them to available services. This education takes the hesitation out of starting mental health conversations and equips team members with the skills and tools they need to save the life of someone who suffers in silence.
Leaders can also consider partnering with mental health experts to conduct training sessions and workshops on specific topics like managing the experience of stress and overwhelm, the importance of mindfulness to develop stress resilience, and how to recognize when you are languishing instead of thriving. This effort not only provides employees with the skills and tools necessary to manage their mental health in challenging times, but also lends credibility to the organization's commitment to mental health support.
As a trained mental health clinician with the education and experience to recognize signs and symptoms of distress, I frequently witness the effects of poor mental health on performance at work. Unfortunately, fewer than a third of people with mental health challenges get the help they need, and this comes at a significant cost to the individual and the companies they work for. When employees are "languishing" (a.k.a. surviving instead of thriving), the resulting loss in productivity both inside and outside of work is almost incalculable.
For leaders to fully embrace their role in cultivating the potential of people in processes, they must be willing to address the factors that hinder overall performance, including mental health.
At the same time, organizations that strive to create a nurturing and supportive culture that prioritizes employee wellbeing must not only address mental health concerns when they arise but commit to fostering working environments that do not undermine mental health in the first place. Shockingly, 40% of employees report their jobs have had a negative impact on their mental health. Cultural factors like unsustainable workloads and toxic behavior from colleagues negatively impact the overall wellbeing of those expected to perform in such environments. (click to read more about toxic workplace behavior).
The pandemic underscored the vital connection between mental health and workplace performance and emphasized the need for a proactive approach to foster employee wellbeing. We need more leaders equipped with the knowledge and skills to address mental health concerns if they hope to develop potential with employees. We also need more companies to create nurturing and supportive cultures that effectively manage mental health challenges when they arise and commit to creating work environments that do not detract from mental health. Embracing our expanded roles to care for the overall health and wellbeing of our employees is essential for individual growth and development, but also the sustained success of organizations in the post-pandemic era.
Danielle Terranova is the voice behind Leadership Lessons with Danielle.
She has been an executive coach since 2015 and owner of Terranova Consulting, LLC since 2019.