Employee mental health and wellbeing remain a pressing workplace need: one study found that 83% of CEOs and 70% of employees who responded reported missing at least one day of work due to stress, burnout, and mental health challenges –and more than half of CEOs and 43% of employees missed a full week for the same reasons.

The same study, which surveyed more than 6,000 people in the UK, Germany, Australia, and the US, also revealed that companies are reducing their support for employee mental health and wellbeing. According to the report, 71% of the workers who participated said: “their company increased the focus on mental health in the wake of Covid-19, but just 25% say they have kept up that focus in the last year.”

As we wrote earlier, the disconnect between leaders and employees regarding the pandemic impact is widening. The immediate imperative for employers is to set aside their assumptions and develop a specific understanding of how their employees are faring, especially in terms of employee mental health and wellbeing.

Few companies have an employee wellbeing strategy in place 

An important ramification of this gap in perception relates to employee wellbeing strategies companies have implemented. Just 19% of leaders responding to a survey conducted by Indeed.com and the Harvard Business Review say they have an employee wellbeing strategy in place at their organisation. This maps almost exactly with findings from IBM that fewer than 1 in 5 employees rate their employers’ support of their wellbeing during the pandemic as “excellent.”

What’s especially confounding is the fact that in the same survey, more than 90% of business leaders said a happier workplace makes it easier to retain and attract talent, and 87% believe it gives them a competitive advantage.

Employees expect more wellbeing initiatives from their employer

Additionally, the experience of the pandemic drove significant changes in what employees expect from employers. Topping the list: a sense of belonging and focus on individual employee mental health and wellbeing.

“Employees now expect senior executives to care far more about their mental health. Forward-thinking companies are responding by using data insights and staff feedback to inform strategies and decision-making at board level,” John Crowley wrote for Raconteur.

Notably, employees are demonstrating their willingness to act upon their desires. According to the same IBM report mentioned earlier, 20% of employees voluntarily changed jobs, and the top four reasons they gave for doing so were:

  • More flexibility in work schedule or location (32%)
  • Desire for more purposeful work (27%)
  • Better support and benefits for their wellbeing (26%)
  • Wish to work for a company that was a better fit for their values (25%).

Reasons why employees leave jobs: IBM

“If executives want to retain top talent—particularly Gen Z and Millennials—they will need to understand employees’ evolving expectations, motivations, and aspirations…,” note the authors of the report by IBM.

Benefits of investing in employee wellbeing

A CEO study from IBM compared Outperformers to Underperformers across multiple dimensions. For employee wellbeing, the difference was stark: the data revealed that Outperformers focus more on employee wellbeing, with 97% more of them than Underperformers supporting workforce health and wellness — even when it impacts near-term profits.

However, the same gaps in perception between leaders and employees highlighted above also exist when it comes to the effectiveness of the plans companies implement to address employee wellbeing concerns. The gap reduces the return on investment and worse, bypasses the significant improvement in performance and engagement a well-received employee wellbeing programme can deliver.

How investing in wellbeing pays off, a mini case study:

One of our clients, Capital Asset Management, has doubled down on personalised 1:1 meetings between leaders and their teams and shared with us their approach.

“It is important for leaders to check up on their teams and not assume they are OK just because productivity levels are high,” notes Chirine Harb, Capital Asset Management’s head of operations. “We’re looking more at how the employees are coping on a personal level, going beyond productivity.”

Chirine made a point of noting that meetings are initiated by leaders, who come well prepared to talk about the employee’s development and performance – and how they are faring personally.

This is the opportunity to ask how are you doing, really. It’s a way to take care of employees,” she told us. “We usually have a very very personal discussion, asking, “What’s going well, what are you struggling with,” which helps us identify any resources that person may need.”

The meetings have proven to be time well spent. Chirine tells us the feedback from employees has been overwhelmingly positive, with employees describing the meetings as “lovely,” and “the best one to ones I’ve ever had because they’re really specific to me.”

“The team members feel really valued in that you’re really looking after their career progression, their development, their mental health, their physical health, their training, and anything else that has to do with them personally.”

Chirine also notes that the company has seen a rise in performance and productivity since increasing the focus on individual employees.

“This personal approach and interest in them a people make them want to give you that extra above and beyond effort. It’s not about just doing their job. They like what they’re doing, and they like who they’re doing it for, and that easily translates into productivity.”

Different perspectives on the effectiveness of employee wellbeing initiatives 

Large global studies from both Microsoft and IBM shed light on the difference in perspective that exists between leaders and employees regarding the effectiveness of employee wellness programmes and their responses to employee needs during Covid.

The Microsoft Trend Index showed the disparity in perceived individual employee wellbeing, with more than 60% of surveyed leaders saying that they were “thriving,” whereas more than half of employees reported being overworked, and nearly 40% indicating they are exhausted.

The IBM study titled “Closing the Chasm” found that executives tend to overestimate the effectiveness of the company’s efforts to support employees. For example, 80% of executives agreed or strongly agreed when asked if their companies were supporting the physical and emotional health of employees. However, when employees were asked the same question, only 46% agreed.

“The message here is that, for many organisations, sensing-and-responding processes are underdeveloped or just plain ineffective,” the IBM study authors commented. “If you think you’re providing a benefit, and the recipient of that benefit doesn’t see it the same way, you’ve failed. Employee expectations of their employers have permanently changed. There’s clearly more work to be done to deliver on the promise of comprehensive employee well-being.”

Understanding employee wellbeing and mental health in the workplace

Leaders need to recognise and assess the impact the workplace has on employee mental health, wellbeing, and happiness. While these are three distinctly different dimensions, consider, for example, the effects stress has on people:

  • Workplace stress is correlated with increased depression and anxiety,
  • Stress also contributes to physical ailments, such as diabetes and hypertension.

Many companies are failing to assess and address a crucial component of employees’ wellbeing, their mental health. This underscores the challenges employees are facing on a personal level, and how important it is for leaders to check in on their people and assess their wellbeing.

A recent poll found that 25% of workers said their workplace had not checked in on their mental health since the pandemic hit and and almost one-third of those polled said they have never had a conversation with their line manager about their mental health.

Overlooking employees’ mental health can have dire consequences for an organisation, ranging from reduced productivity in the current moment to an increased turnover later on.

To find the truth about how your employees are faring, and to identify any particular trouble spots within your organisation, we recommend the simple “AURA” approach:

  • Acceptance. Accept that the divisions in perception of employee wellbeing described above are likely to exist within your organisation. Even if you think your organisation is perfect, it’s better to check and operate from a position of certainty.
  • Understand how employees are faring. We have created a short, focused Mental Health & Wellbeing On-Demand survey to assess how your team is doing. (If you’re not an Engagement Multiplier client, you can use this survey at no charge by starting your free trial here.)
  • Respond transparently to your team. Share the findings with employees to build trust and accountability.
  • Act where it will make a real difference. Armed with the truth, you’ll be able to take focused action and resolve the challenges employees are experiencing.

Strategies to help improve employee wellbeing

Chances are the insights from the employee survey will reveal areas where leaders can take meaningful action to boost morale, reduce stress and improve employee wellbeing with no significant expenditure, such as:

  • Flexible schedules and hybrid work arrangements, to take pressure off families, or cater to evolving employee preferences,
  • Avoiding using employee monitoring tools to track productivity (these do more harm than good),
  • Creating outcome-based KPIs and trusting employees to deliver results,
  • Coaching managers whose teams are struggling more than others, and help them develop improved leadership skills and habits,
  • More clarity around the company’s direction of travel, and their contribution, to provide more certainty for employees.

Find additional cost-effective ways to support your employees’ mental health here.

There’s no question that pursuing the truth about what employees think and feel requires some courage and bravery on the part of the leadership team. And employee “wellbeing” is a broad topic that’s new to many leaders.

However, leaders need to remember they don’t need to be all things to all people. Focusing on connecting with employees, hearing from them directly, aligning leadership actions with employee feedback, and communicating transparently with the team will enable the company to make immediate progress toward improving employee wellbeing.