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Mental health in the workplace: A welcome shift in expectations

Three young professionals at work table. Two males are passing papers and in deep discussion. A woman sits at the head of table in meditative pose.

There has been an obvious and highly welcome shift in perceptions of mental health culturally speaking – a change that has been coming for some time. According to this article, originally published in 2015, 90% of Americans valued mental and physical health equally.  

In 2019, another survey carried out by the American Psychological Association found that 87% of Americans believed that people shouldn’t be ashamed if they suffer from a mental health disorder.

This trend is continuing, with more acceptance and expectations surrounding mental health becoming the norm. One place where this is particularly noticeable is when it comes to mental health in the workplace. 

Mental health in the workplace

In the US, employers have certain obligations when it comes to the mental health of their employees. For example, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), states that employees are entitled to a total of 12 weeks of job-protected leave in certain situations.

Likewise, federal law states that employees who suffer from mental health conditions are protected against discrimination and harassment that’s directly related to their condition. This also extends to rights to workplace confidentiality, and reasonable accommodations. 

Going beyond legal obligations

However, there’s a significant difference between doing something because the law states you must and taking the initiative as an organization to do right by your staff. A 2022 report found that 76% of companies have increased investment in “stress management and resilience resources” for their employees. These resources can be used for work situations as well as in their personal lives.

What’s driving these changes?

Pure altruism isn’t the only reason that employers are interested in promoting workplace wellness. Guidance from the U.S. surgeon general released in 2022 outlined how long working hours, micro-management, and low wages can have a substantial effect on the nation’s mental health crisis.

This has real-world financial consequences for employers. A Gallup poll found that poor mental health cost the U.S. economy roughly $47.6 billion annually in lost productivity. On the other end of the spectrum, investing in mental health has reported benefits in improved engagement, higher productivity, retention, and increased morale. 

The role of employees

However, this is far from a purely corporate endeavor. In many ways, it is the employees themselves that are leading this change. A report by Paychex and Future Workforce found that 60% of employees consider the company’s approach to well-being to be a key priority when applying for their next job. 

An expectation-reality gap still exists

Although there has been incredible progress with mental health resources in the workplace, a gap still exists between what employees want and the programs on offer. Research shows that, while almost half of HR leaders believe that their companies support employees – only 24% of the employees agreed.

There is a particular change in expectations when it comes to younger workers. The Young Adults and Workplace Wellness Survey found that working-age Gen Z and younger millennials (between the ages of 24-35) have very different attitudes than their older counterparts. 

Mental health and flexibility

Having dedicated HR programs is not the only factor when it comes to employee wellness. According to the survey, a flexible work schedule and greater work-life balance are the key to meeting expectations. 

In fact, in the study, the participants rated eight different paid time off and flexible work benefits as among the top 10 most desired wellness benefits. After all, mental health is rarely entirely connected to an individual’s professional life. Many aspects, from poor relationships to vicarious trauma due to geopolitical conflicts can affect a person, which spills into their professional environment.

The impact of low pay

Financial remuneration also plays a role in mental health. While most companies wish to believe that mental health is purely a culture or HR issue, the fact is that low pay (and high levels of debt) have a huge impact in terms of stress. 

A reported 44% say they have student loans or consumer debt to pay off. What’s more, 49% consider paying this off as more important than saving for retirement. In general, there are low levels of optimism around being able to retire caused by poor financial situations. 

What does work mean to younger adults?

Younger adults have fundamentally different expectations of what work means to them. In general, their ties to work are not very strong, with 68% claiming it is a way to make a living – but not a part of their identity. 

That’s not to say that Gen Z doesn’t care. They simply care about different things. A Deloitte report found that the generation places a lot of emphasis on core values. In total, 77% of respondents say that the organization’s values must align with their own to consider working there.  Aligning employer programs with employee expectations

In the end, there needs to be a certain shift in thinking and outlook to come to a compromise in wellness expectations. The subject is something of an ongoing negotiation, where some companies are willing to offer more than others. 

What is certain is that older ideas of workplace wellness (or lack thereof) cannot be sustained. As younger generations become more embedded in the workplace, these issues will only become more to the fore. 

Bell Seal Program medallion displays starting with Bronze on left, then Silver to right, then Gold, then Platinum

The Bell Seal Program

In an effort to ensure the quality standards of workplace wellness programs, Mental Health America has the Bell Seal Program. This national certification seeks to recognize those employers that are making real and genuine strides to create healthy workplace environments. 

The program has been informed by MHA’s long history and experience in research and advocacy, which provides a strong authority to truly understand the impact that employers are having.   If you are an employer and would like to find out more about the Bell Seal Program, please follow this link. For any other questions, or more regional support from the Illinois chapter, you can always contact us at any time.  


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