- Engaged employees are more likely report work has a positive impact on mental health
- Commitment to building strengths is a top driver of positive effect on mental health
- Poor management is extremely harmful to the mental health of workers
Mental health can encompass many disease states ranging from depression, anxiety and stress to more severe conditions such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and psychosis. Assessing “mental health” more generally as an underlying condition, recent Gallup research has revealed that 40% of U.S. workers report that their job has had a negative impact on their mental health in the prior six months, including 7% describing it as having an “extremely negative” impact.
Overall, 19% of workers rate their mental health as just fair or poor, which is linked to an extra $47.6 billion in unplanned absences from work each year due to poor mental health, a hefty cost to the American economy. But what are the most important factors that actually influence the mental health of employees? And what are the managerial hazards to avoid that can cause employees’ mental health the most harm?
Improving Worker Mental Health Starts With Employee Engagement
The foundation for improving mental health among workers is employee engagement. Gallup measures employee engagement via a scientifically-backed survey that measures several workplace elements, including employees' level of agreement about clarity of expectations, opportunities for development and their opinions counting at work. Through repeated multicountry meta-analyses, employee engagement has been linked to many desirable organizational outcomes, including profitability, productivity, customer service, retention, safety and overall wellbeing. In short, “engaged” employees are involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace while “actively disengaged” employees are disgruntled and disloyal because most of their workplace needs are unmet. Currently, 32% of U.S. workers are classified as engaged.
Employee engagement is a powerful indicator of how a job can affect a worker’s mental health. When Gallup tracked over 10,000 of the same, randomly selected U.S. workers over a six-month period, those who were classified as engaged in February 2022 were five times more likely to report later that their job had an “extremely positive impact” on their mental health over the prior six months than were all other employees. Those who had been classified as actively disengaged, in turn, were likewise over six times more likely to report that their job had an “extremely negative impact” on their mental health over the prior six months than all other employees.
Additionally, employees who were classified in February as “not engaged” -- the type of employees in the middle, whom Gallup has previously characterized as predominantly “quiet quitters” -- are no more likely to report that their job had an extremely positive impact on their mental health than their actively disengaged counterparts.
These results suggest that a tipping point exists between employee engagement and a significant positive impact on employees’ mental health status and that such a tipping point occurs only at the threshold of engagement. Similarly, the tipping point for a negative impact (mostly) occurs only at the threshold of active disengagement. That this mental health “escape velocity” -- whether positive or negative -- happens primarily with the engaged or actively disengaged groups vividly highlights the critical intersection between engagement and its subsequent impact on worker mental health. This finding also underscores a new urgency for leaders who seek new strategies to address the mental health of their employees.
The Top 5 Pillars for Boosting Employee Mental Health
Beyond having an engaged workforce generally, what else can organizational leaders do to help? Gallup sought to identify the most salient aspects of work life that relate to mental health. Nearly 50 individual metrics were analyzed to distill the most common and highest return-on-investment actions that result in a positive impact on employee mental health.
In each case, employees who strongly agree with these five statements are at least seven times more likely to report that their job had an extremely positive impact on their mental health in the prior six months, resulting in what we’ve identified as the top five pillars of employee mental health.
1. The organization demonstrates a commitment to building the strengths of each employee and helping each do what they do best every day.
Honoring each employee’s natural aptitude and making every effort to ensure that he or she gets to spend as much time as possible doing what they do best every hour of every day is critical. Strengths usage is the ultimate optimizer of performance, and employers who prioritize it among their employees reap the added benefit of a significant positive impact on mental health among their workers.
2. Employees are managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work.
Doing great work comes with a sense of accomplishment, purpose and recognition. Being motivated to do so serves as a powerful booster of mental health in the workplace and simultaneously creates a culture of high performance and achievement.
3. Employees believe that their organization authentically cares about their overall wellbeing.
Amid many proven strategies to positively affect wellbeing in the workplace, this major mental health booster is heavily influenced by (1) providing easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables in the workplace, (2) providing resources to help employees manage their finances and prepare for retirement, (3) encouraging employees to share their own ideas about boosting wellbeing in the workplace, and (4) including family members in wellbeing-related programs and activities.
4. Employees trust the leadership of their organization.
In practical terms, this pillar is most heavily influenced by how effectively leadership plainly verbalizes an ongoing roadmap indicating how it plans to lead the organization through emerging challenges in the marketplace. The more successful this communication, the greater the trust it engenders among the workforce and the stronger the subsequent mental health impact.
5. Employees feel connected to the organization’s culture.
Employees whose leaders help them feel like they are a part of the organization’s purpose and who help them see how their individual goals connect to the broader goals of the organization have substantially better mental health outcomes.
Avoid at All Costs: 4 Mistakes That Damage Employee Mental Health
Other aspects of work life are particularly detrimental to the mental health of employees if executed poorly. Organizations that are the most notorious for harming the mental health of their employees will be disproportionately guilty of these four offenses -- employees who encounter these misses are at least seven times more likely to say their job resulted in an extremely negative impact on their mental health in the prior six months.
1. The materials and equipment required to do the job right are not being provided.
One of the most basic psychological needs, sending employees into their workplace without the proper tools to execute their jobs is among the strongest negative influencers of mental health.
2. The opinions of employees are not adequately heard or counted.
Employees who don’t feel their opinions count often feel psychologically unsafe to share them, typically because they report to someone who isn’t a good manager. Even if they do share their thoughts, opinions that appear to be ignored or feedback that goes nowhere can result in frustration, worry, stress, and anger and harm the social fabric of the organization’s culture.
3. Customers are not being properly cared for and prioritized.
This includes not consistently delivering on the brand promises made to customers and maintaining the speed and agility to accommodate customers in a changing marketplace. Workers take pride in great customer service and brand loyalty -- poor execution here is a major factor in poor employee mental health.
4. Management does not know what employees do best.
The only thing worse than having a manager that focuses on weakness is having a manager who ignores individual team members, which reduces the probability of being engaged to a mere 2%. Small wonder, therefore, that obliviousness to the natural strengths of employees will be of significant harm to mental health.
One Last Thought
Finally, employee assistance programs (EAPs) are a means to help support employee mental health through using common sense approaches that have gone unaddressed by too many organizations. About 30% of U.S. workers don't know how to access their company EAP, and only 43% assert that their employer provides easily accessible mental health services. In response, EAPs need to be heavily and steadily promoted and thoroughly destigmatized by leaders. Furthermore, too many organizations continue to require employees to sign up (i.e., “opt-in”) rather than to be pre-enrolled (“opt-out”) of company EAPs, causing more administrative and psychological roadblocks to use them.
Addressing awareness of and easy access to EAPs is important, but just the beginning. The far more important aspects of maximizing the probability of successfully impacting employee mental health lie in how the human capital of an organization is managed and how well its brand promises are kept. The ramifications of successful execution or missing the mark are far-reaching for the organization itself, and for the people who work there.