Employee Mental Health and Well-Being Are No Game
For all its faults, the Olympic Games remain one of my favorite events to watch. The time difference of this year's games in Tokyo makes watching fencing along with my morning coffee a fun break from the routine.
What wasn’t fun was hearing about legendary U.S. gymnast Simone Biles pulling out of the competition due to what she called her mind and body not being in sync. It’s a dangerous place for any extreme athlete to be, and I would count gymnastics as one of the most extreme sports at the Olympics. The consequence of a wrong move isn’t simply a failure to win. It can lead to disastrous results, even paralysis.
The courageous move by Biles capped a moment at the highest levels in sport where mental health moved from the backburner to the spotlight. Earlier, tennis star Naomi Osaka stepped away from tournaments to protect her mental health. The commentary in each instance has ranged from encouraging to disappointing, and there seems to be no doubt that race plays a factor in some of the worst criticisms of both Biles and Osaka.
While the world of sports comes to grip with mental health becoming part of the conversation the same way physical health has, workplace leaders are in the midst of their own serious reckoning — with mental wellness and well-being a central figure in it.
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There are not a lot of instances where ordinary people can feel like they relate to a world-class athlete. But after the year we’ve had, I imagine more people can put themselves in Biles’ and Osaka’s shoes in prioritizing themselves.
A recent study of U.S. workers by TELUS International, a Canadian-based provider of digital IT and customer experience solutions, found that:
- 75% of workers struggled at work due to anxiety.
- 4 in 5 find it hard to shut off in the evenings.
- More than half have taken mental health days.
- 80% would consider quitting their current job for one that focused more on meeting employee’s mental health.
We’ve read article after article about how people are leaving jobs because they're being forced back in the office full time. But being in the office itself is just a symptom of a broader challenge, prioritizing worker well-being beyond soft advice like checking in on employees regularly or giving more flexibility. Employees need fully developed strategies and programs that meet their needs.
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Well-Being Is a DE&I Issue
Make no mistake that some of the harshest criticisms of the mental health of athletes who have climbed the highest peaks in their sports are driven by race. Biles and Osaka wouldn’t be where they are today if they hadn’t faced and overcome adversity on thousands of occasions.
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It shouldn’t surprise you that 97% of Black employees want to continue working in a hybrid environment, compared to 79% of their white counterparts. "I think what's driving that number is that a lot of Black and Indigenous people, and people of color don't have psychological safety at work,” explained Randstad’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Audra Jenkins in an interview with HR Dive. “These everyday slights, insults — a death by 1,000 cuts is what it really is.”
Jenkins and Randstad have taken steps to address mental health and diversity, equity and inclusion challenges in a hybrid work environment. For instance, they changed their employee assistance program (EAP) vendor to more closely align with their health care provider. That way, when someone needed to move from EAP-provided sessions to longer term mental health care, the transition would be smoother. They also focus on diverse talent’s well-being in both interviews and exit surveys, and C-suite leadership drives diversity initiatives.
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Time to Fix the Mental Health Ecosystem
Mental health can’t be swept under the rug easily, and that’s a good thing. Organizations are using technologies and services like wearables, digital mindfulness exercises, and virtual mental health treatment to help bridge the gap for remote and hybrid workers.
But as McKinsey points out, most organizations today are taking a fragmented approach to well-being, especially on the mental health side of things. As they write, “[F]ew, if any, companies [...] regards employee well-being as a key asset and a strategic enabler.”
That can’t, and won’t, be the case for long. Instead, organizations have to act now to fix their fragmented ecosystem of mental health technologies and services before it’s too late.
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About the Author
Lance Haun is a leadership and technology columnist for Reworked. He has spent nearly 20 years researching and writing about HR, work and technology. Connect with Lance Haun: