Why every company should be thinking about employee mental health

Fidelma Butler Profile picture for user Fidelma Butler April 5, 2022
Fidelma Butler of Zendesk shares some in-house examples to develop a inclusive, supportive, and productive company culture for employee mental health, and some important questions employers should be asking.

People connecting jigsaw pieces of a head together, employee mental health concept © Rawpixel.com - Shutterstock
(© Rawpixel.com - Shutterstock)

On any given day, mental health is in the headlines. Ye, formerly Kanye West, has been sharing his struggles on his social media feed. Last year Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka both made very public decisions to prioritize themselves over their gymnastics and tennis careers. After the dispute with officials that made international headlines, Osaka spoke publicly for the first time about her struggles with anxiety and depression.

A fall 2020 study found that one in four adults in the United States suffered from some form of depression, three times higher than before the onset of the pandemic. And conversations that were once stigmatized are now happening within our homes, our friend groups, and even with our employers.

This dialogue between employers and their people was overdue. To be fair, in the past, companies probably didn’t really know how to initiate that conversation. Frances Brittingham, a customer experience manager at meditation app Calm, says:

Employers were sort of figuring out how to talk about mental health with their employees. They recognized at the start of the pandemic that now’s the time.

As workplaces and workforces continue to evolve, one thing is certain: employers have a pivotal role to play in helping their people thrive. Osaka wrote in her Time essay, It’s OK To Not Be OK

There can be moments for any of us where we are dealing with issues behind the scenes. Each of us as humans is going through something on some level.

She insisted her decision to pull out over media requirements was “never to inspire revolt, but rather to look critically at our workplace and ask if we can do better.” Brittingham adds:

This is something that’s going to stick with us. People run, people do yoga, people maintain their physical health, and we are starting to recognize that maintaining your mental health is just as important.

Build a culture of support

Support at work — whether your office is a tennis court, a cubicle, or your living room — is more than just a feel-good company mantra. More than half of employees say that it’s critical to doing their jobs well, according to Zendesk’s 2021 Employee Experience Trends Report.

The nature of the employer-employee relationship is shifting, most certainly for good. Technology is a huge part of this — and a complicated one. Many companies are studying and investing in the employee experience. Human resources and IT teams, who both interface with employees more than any other parts of a company, must walk a tightrope act. They must invest in technologies to facilitate hybrid and remote work life — and also keep a close eye on meeting fatigue, employee need for human connection, and overall frustration with screens and digitization. The most successful companies walk the line between technologies that create efficiency — and are even sometimes fun to use — and maintaining a personal touch.

Here are a few steps that business can take to breed a more inclusive, supportive, and productive company culture:

  • Hold space for people to share their feelings

Collectively enduring a difficult experience brought mental health issues into sharp focus. But employees faced challenges long before the pandemic, and they’ll continue to do so long after it’s over. At Zendesk, we host Empathy Circles, spaces for employees to safely connect and share their perspectives. Leadership is present but only in a listening and learning capacity. The focus is on opportunities for employees to give and receive support.

  • Create opportunities to connect across teams

Whether or not you are bringing employees back into the office, giving them opportunities to connect beyond their usual teams can help to build a sense of community. This could take the form of group events — Zendesk has done everything from virtual drag shows, to book talks and truffle making — or regular meetups for employee resource groups (ERGs) that can provide additional avenues for support. It’s important to keep an open dialogue with your team and solicit ideas that are as high-tech or no tech as they like.

  • Provide on-demand access to resources, and extend benefits to immediate households:

Access to resources that promote mental health, whether it’s the opportunity to connect with a counselor or sit quietly with a guided meditation can help employees and their families get the help they need, whenever they need it.

  • Promote flexibility where possible

“I never need to know you’ll be late because of a dentist appointment,” wrote Ian Sohn, president and chief client officer at Hawkeye agency, in a LinkedIn post. “Or that you’re leaving early for your kid’s soccer game.” Two years later, that sentiment is even more important. With work and personal lives more intertwined than ever before, companies must recognize that employees are balancing a lot. Where possible and as long as employees are able to meet their responsibilities at work, flexibility should be extended.

  • Encourage mental health days

Gone are the days where employees are chained to their desks for eight, sometimes more hours a day. Not only are mental health days a good way to alleviate stress and avoid burnout, but they help to provide additional flexibility when employees need it most. Things like “Flexi Fridays” or “No Meeting Wednesdays” are just a few ways that companies have been trying to give their people a much needed break. At our own company, we’ve added a Recharge Day — employees are off (often for the second Friday of each month) to take care of themselves, whatever that means to them.

  • Listen to feedback

Whether it’s internal surveys, open door policies, Slack channel feedback, or regular team meetings, people leaders should regularly check in and listen to feedback. Issues can’t be fixed if no one knows about them, and this information helps to improve policies and address any gaps in what employees need and what their company is providing. But that’s just the first step. Feedback is only valuable when there’s buy-in at the top and commitment to taking action based on what employees are articulating.

Questions to consider

According to a 2021 LinkedIn study, companies that promote greater flexibility for their people are seeing increased retention, higher productivity, and are recruiting higher quality candidates. What’s more, flexible policies also led to more diverse teams and a greater number of women in leadership roles.

At Zendesk, we now do Recharge Days, typically a day off every month, and some teams offer employees their choice of one Friday afternoon off each month additionally. Many teams have also cut meetings on Fridays after 1pm where possible. This is in addition to preexisting benefits like PTO, which is a ‘take what you need’ approach for exempt US-based employees.

As the workplace continues to evolve, here are some key questions: 

  • If more people are remote, how do we reinforce a positive office culture and keep employees feeling connected and supported?
  • How do we promote flexibility while maintaining productivity?
  • What resources do employees need to navigate these new work challenges?
  • How can these policies reflect the diversity of our employees and their unique needs?
  • How do we avoid burnout?

Not all resources that benefit mental health will target it directly. When thinking of how best to support employees, companies should not only consider policies that promote emotional well-being, but also those that improve related outcomes like physical and financial health, or make their daily lives less complicated.

According to Care.com’s 2021 Future of Benefits report, 98% of surveyed HR leaders plan to expand benefits. With increased flexibility, child and elder care, and mental health and wellness resources at the top of the priority list, it’s a recognition that these factors play an important role in employee mental health, and in turn their productivity and engagement.

Supporting people in the workplace takes time, thought, and tools.

A grey colored placeholder image