We’ve discussed before why there’s a growth in demand for actions to address mental health in the workplace, and how leaders can offer support. Let’s now talk about what to do next, once your company has established a mental health program.

As we emphasized back then, supporting and advocating for mental health requires a systemic change. And this requires that your top leaders acknowledge mental health as a crucial and ongoing issue. This also involves being aware that dealing with burnout is only the tip of the iceberg.

It’s one thing to go through all the surveys, analysis, brainstorming, strategic planning, and policymaking. It’s an entirely different mountain to traverse when it comes to applying your mental health program—and above all, doing it the right way.

How can leaders make sure they’re on the right track? Let’s look back on how we’ve arrived at a point where workplaces are finally taking earnest action on mental health.

How The Dynamic Between Work and Mental Health Has Changed Over the Years

The way we’ve viewed mental health in the context of our jobs has gone through whirlwinds of change in the last two decades. 

In the early days of the internet, being glued to your job was glorified, with startup founders and their employees happy to pull all-nighters in a makeshift office. And shortly after the Great Recession, hustle culture permeated the workplace—overworking became the norm for those who felt they had to go above and beyond, to succeed in a tough market. This culture pushed employees to experience frequent burnout from work.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted society and caused drastic changes in many aspects of our lives, things took a turn. We started to view our jobs differently, as many of us yearned for more flexibility. In an analysis by Pew Research Center in late 2020, of the 5,858 workers surveyed, more than half wanted to continue working from home after the pandemic, when only a fifth of them were able to work from home before COVID-19. 

And for a period of time, workers—especially those who experienced burnout—were emboldened to seek out ‘healthier’ jobs, as mental health took center stage during The Great Resignation.

What’s the common denominator in all of these changes? 

For every collective work culture upheaval, there are macro stressors that have changed the relationship between one’s job and their own mental health.

What are macro stressors?

Macro stressors, or macrolevel stressors, are adversities that impact the larger society and affect people on a wide scale. Aside from recessions and pandemics, according to sociology professor Heather Turner, these stressors include being in combat in a war, living near a war-zone, being present during a political uprising, or facing a major natural disaster.

When macro stressors get coupled with micro stressors, or the personal challenges we encounter— such as the death of a family member or crippling debt—then it’s almost a given that a worker is mentally unwell in their job. Allowing affected workers to take ‘mental health days’ might help in the short term, but for sustainable and long-term support, this is where your company’s mental health program comes in. And almost no program will succeed without the proper work culture.


Why you need to pay attention to your workplace culture

With a mental health program in place, how is mental health as an issue being treated? Has your workplace culture changed for the better? 

Kelly Greenwood and Julie Anas, who published their workplace mental health research in 2019, emphasize that culture change requires both a top-down and bottom-up approach. This means that everyone has a role to play, starting with leaders and managers.

The good news is, since the time of their publication, companies have in fact started to take steps toward culture change. By 2021, 54% of workers believed that mental health was being prioritized at their company compared to other issues, up from 41% in 2019. Further, 47% believed that their manager was equipped to support them if they had a mental health condition, compared to 39% in 2019.

These figures are the end-result of taking definite actions. To drive culture change through your mental health program, here are specific things that leaders need to do.


What Employers Need to Do to Build a Culture Centered on Mental Health

Build a workplace of psychological safety.

Feeling safe—being free from backlash, retaliation, powerplays—is the foundation of a work culture centered on mental health. Creating a work environment where employees feel safe includes training leaders, managers, and all employees on how to navigate mental health at work. 

Workers should be able to initiate and be part of difficult conversations. Managers, in turn, should also serve as allies by sharing their own experiences to promote transparency and openness. “Due to fear and shame,” Greenwood says, “even companies with the best mental health benefits won’t see an uptick in usage [of these benefits] unless a stigma-free culture exists.”

Establish clear ownership and accountability.

For some companies, mental health management is relegated to HR, which can mean that the issue isn’t getting the organizational priority it deserves.

In your program, who is in-charge of planning educational sessions? Is there a dedicated person to check whether the sessions were effective? Do you leverage an HRMS to know which employees need training the most? Are the issues gathered from open forums collated, and then presented to certain process owners for their feedback and action?

Having a mental health program includes being able to see what works and what doesn’t—as well as a mechanism for continual improvement.

Promote sustainable ways of working.

A telltale sign of unsustainable workstyles is the recurrence of burnout. In the last few years, however, workers were able to navigate a rapidly-changing workplace through a mix of remote and onsite work. With employers in many cases requiring employees to return to the office (RTO), 41% of respondents in Greenwood’s survey said that their company’s RTO plan negatively impacted their mental health, while 37% said it was due to the lack of work-life balance or flexibility.

While providing more flexibility can help lead to a more sustainable way of working, it doesn’t have to stop there. More extensive ways might include any of the following:

  • No email after hours
  • No meeting days
  • Accommodating unique working styles and preferences
  • Establishing clear norms on responding to emails and IMs

What’s sustainable for some companies might not work for your company, so it’s important for your mental health program to fit your company’s needs.

Continually improve your training program.

To improve personal mental health, people have used gamification, wherein activities such as journaling, mood monitoring, and self-reflection are made more successful by using a design-thinking approach. 

In like manner, to improve your company’s mental health training program, you can incorporate game-like aspects. Aside from maintaining accountability as suggested above, you can identify actionable metrics that serve as guideposts to enhance mental health education sessions. These metrics might include any of the following:

  • Participation rates per department
  • Time off taken by employees to unwind after they attended a session
  • Engagement metrics on internal bulletins about mental health

Some companies might tend to “set it and forget it” with their program that they overlook opportunities for improvement, or fail to address weak areas.

Move away from euphemisms and band-aid solutions.

Typical stop-gap measures include referring someone who has had a meltdown at work to a mental health professional—but never addressing the root cause of their breakdown. Unless the root cause is known and dealt with, a similar episode is likely to happen again, and it could be from someone else. 

Making use of available psychologists or psychiatrists is only one aspect of the solution. A holistic approach is needed. This means that your wellness program should be aimed at finding out what the stressors at work are, and how to avoid pushing workers to their breaking point.

It’s no longer enough to offer euphemisms such as “mental fitness” and “well-being” or to recommend the best meditation apps. Instead, your company’s leaders should connect what they say according to the program or policy, to what they actually do in the workplace.

Acknowledge that mental health is tied to DEI.

Macro stressors, while they affect many of us, don’t impact us in the same degree. It’s also worth noting that access to the benefits to cope with these stressors, vary. In the United States, for example, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), Asian-Americans are 51% less likely to take advantage of mental health services than their white counterparts. In the same analysis, Latino people are 25% less likely, while Black people are 21% less likely.

Even in a non-U.S. context, like in the Philippines, DEI deserves consideration in mental health programs. There may not be as much racial diversity in a Filipino setting, but DEI must account for underrepresented groups, such as single mothers and senior citizens who have returned to the workforce.

There’s disparity in terms of both impact and access, and employers need to acknowledge this and take it into account.

Forge a core group of mental health advocates.

Finally, and this is crucial to ‘seeing’ your mental health program in action—gather your key supporters. While you may have already identified in your program the process owners, approvers, and POCs, it helps to have a group of passionate people who will advocate for mental health in the background.

In most workplaces, a committee on safety and health is created, whether for compliance reasons or genuine concern. It’s high time that a mental health club or council within the organization is formed to push the envelope of what it means to have a workplace that’s centered on this critical issue.


Where to go from here

It might be hard to avoid giving your HR team the daunting task of not only maintaining your mental health program but also continually improving it. Since mental health is supposed to be prioritized by the entire organization, all of the burden shouldn’t fall onto HR’s shoulders.

In most cases, however, your HR professionals have to bear much of the weight in carrying out your program. Thankfully, an HRMS like Payruler exists to lighten their workload, by automating tasks such as timekeeping and payroll computation. Learn more on how investing in an HRMS can go a long way to promoting a culture of safety, flexibility, and sustainability.