A New Approach to Workplace Mental Health in 2023
As we head into the fourth year of the COVID-19 pandemic, burnout and exhaustion are more common among American workers than ever before, according to a recent report by the Society of Human Resources. Although mental health is continuing to make its way into conversations in the office and online, significant work remains to improve the mental health of employees.
So let's look at the current state of worker mental health, with an eye to how organizations can reimagine their mental health strategies as we head into the new year.
The State of Worker Mental Health in 2023
For starters, what’s different about worker mental health in 2023? "People are often finding that they're not only unable to sustain general feelings of contentment or happiness for longer periods of time, but that they're also experiencing way more emotions in a day than they usually do,” said Melissa Doman, MA, an organizational psychologist and author of "Yes, You Can Talk About Mental Health at Work (Here’s Why and How To Do It Really Well)."
A former clinical mental health therapist, Doman explained that the stress levels associated with the pandemic have resulted in many individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions experiencing flare-ups, as well as people with addictive behaviors relapsing.
Doman is also noticing significant rises in anger, irritability and displaced aggression toward others. “We're not realizing it, because we're taking on all this information, so consistently, without a filter, that that disturbed response needs to exit your body somewhere, and it's often going towards people we don't intend to, at times we don't intend to, with content that we don't want,” she said. “My concern is that the next epidemic has already started. It’s an epidemic of rising mental illness."
The scarcity of therapists and other mental health providers to meet pre-pandemic demands has now resulted in a mental health system overwhelmed by COVID-19 triggers said Doman. More people are seeking out therapy to deal with pandemic-related stress, yet “the system is just inundated and completely underwater, and the rise in diagnoses and the extension of waitlists is pretty scary,” she said.
Reimagining Worker Mental Health in 2023
Although destigmatizing mental health and educating employees on available mental health benefits, such as the organization’s EAP, are important first steps to improving employee health, Doman believes they’re simply not enough. “We've already destigmatized the topic until we're blue in the face,” she explained. New strategies and approaches are needed to effectively address worker mental health in 2023.
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“We need to learn how to actually have the conversation and how to keep it as an evergreen professional development topic,” said Doman. Importantly, making mental health an ongoing evergreen topic requires sponsorship and role modeling from all levels, rather than just human resources and business leaders.
According to Doman, employers maintain a special role in supporting workers’ mental health, particularly during challenging times. “Employers have a duty of care to make sure that their workforce has a psychologically and physiologically safe work environment.” She added that companies are responsible for providing reasonable and affordable access to behavioral health resources, ensuring employees know they exist and how to access them and working to normalize and continue their use.
Yet employers aren’t solely responsible for worker mental health. Rather, Doman describes it as a symbiotic relationship. Workers also have a personal responsibility to use the resources made available to them, to manage their mental health, and speak up about what they need, provided it’s psychologically safe to do so. According to her, this aspect of employee responsibility for managing mental health and accessing resources is not talked about enough.
Doman recognizes that being responsible for your own mental health can be uncomfortable. She recommends “a cold, hard dose of being very honest with yourself that you have to be accountable for this process.” Once you recognize that no one is going to manage your mental health for you, she explained there’s then the opportunity to begin using your employer’s support services, accessing vetted resources, and starting the learning journey, which might include talking about your mental health at work.
On a final note, Doman said, “We are talking about this topic. But make no mistake, it is still very early days, and we have a lot of work left to do. So even though we're making progress, it doesn't mean that we can rest yet.”
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About the Author
Dr. Kyle Elliott, MPA, CHES (he/him/his) is the founder, career coach and executive coach behind CaffeinatedKyle.com.