When the spotlight is on highly accomplished people like gymnast Simone Biles, we often perceive them as superhuman, immune from the typical struggles most of us face on a daily basis. After saying she had the weight of the world on her shoulders, Biles pulled out of most of the 2020 Olympics (except for the balance beam finals) citing mental health reasons. She followed in the footsteps of Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from the French Open due to depression and anxiety and Prince Harry who left the Royal Family, citing his own struggles with mental health.
“In the last 18 months, we’ve seen a major shift in the mental health conversation as the pandemic, working environments and more continue to take a toll on us mentally,” said Henry Albrecht, co-founder and CEO of Limeade. “Now, we’re seeing major athletes and celebrities contribute to the mental health conversation. Present and past Olympians Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles and Michael Phelps continue to push essential and discomfiting dialogue on how real and universal mental health challenges are. Their words and deeds show strength, not weakness, and de-stigmatize emotional and mental health challenges.”
Lisa Desai, chief behavioral health officer at MindWise, agrees. “Simone Biles has demonstrated personal integrity and tremendous courage in her decision to prioritize her mental health,” she said. “It’s a painful dilemma that hardworking, gifted athletes must choose between pursuing their achievements and managing their mental and emotional well-being. Let’s hope that the actions of Biles and Naomi Osaka—and before that, Michael Phelps—will lead the way for real change in protecting both the physical and mental health of athletes.”
It’s not only those on the global stage who feel the squeeze of self-sacrifice, but many in the workforce are under incredible pressure to perform and succeed. Critics say, “It’s your job to work hard and deal with stress. So grin and bear it.” But with global support growing, mental health has risen as a top priority for business leaders in the last year and a half. No longer can companies expect the workforce to sacrifice their mental health to keep their jobs. More workers refuse to perpetuate the myth that they must be superhuman to find success, and they’re less willing to suck it up, put their heads down and push through. The stigma around counseling is lifting. And it’s okay to take a mental health day or to create lifelines to co-exist with deadlines. Science backs this trend, showing when we take time out to rest and relax, we’re more engaged and productive—even more effective at our work tasks.
So, what other steps can companies take to improve employee mental health as these celebrities and organizations begin to address a problem that’s long overdue? Bumble and Hootsuite each closed their offices for a week to address burnout and employee mental health. As employees and employers continue to navigate work from home and the fine line of being always available, more companies are prioritizing mental health to avoid burnout and fatigue. To further support its employees’ health and well-being and combat burnout, MikMak in partnership with its internal mental health coalition, instituted company-wide office closure from July 5—July 9, 2021 to encourage employees to take care of themselves without the pressure of work in the background. The Knot Worldwide, a leading global family of brands, gave their employees a “Mental Health Honeymoon” by closing their offices from May 28th through June 1st of this year. In addition, the company has incorporated various other initiatives and programs to encourage employees to focus on mental health including year round bi-weekly virtual meditations, an EAP Wellness series with Health Advocate with counseling, weekly resources around mental health, balance, and well-being and the launch ofGinger, an on-demand emotional and mental health support app for life challenges through coaching via text-based chats, self-guided activities and video-based therapy and psychiatry.
“When companies prioritize the well-being of their employees, business health follows,” said John Morgan, president of Lee Hecht Harrison. “How leaders view their talent is a big change that has been accelerated by the pandemic. Successful leaders are looking at their talent as a renewable resource and finding new ways to invest in their employees to future-proof talent pipelines. The rise of the coaching culture is part of this trend that will likely have big impacts on employee and company performance.”
Still, Limeade’s Albrecht says more needs to be done: “Our research shows that 30% of employees have disclosed a mental or emotional health issue in the workplace, and 47% who have disclosed an issue have experienced a negative consequence for doing so,” he said. “That’s just not OK. Most large companies now use simple technologies to highlight key benefits like employee assistance programs, mental health resources and even mindfulness and resilience trainings. Most companies have these hidden in their benefits offerings, but are bringing them to the surface in new ways—like the new well-being program promoted by the CEO or a Mental Health Month—that provide help and ensure anonymity. As these conversations continue, we will see material improvements to anxiety, depression, addiction, social isolation, fears, phobias and other treatable mental health issues. Employees have more power than ever to return to “business as usual” only if they are ready to. So companies need to pay attention, create environments of care and prioritize well-being throughout their cultures,” Albrecht said.
Dr. Meisha-Ann Martin, director of people analytics at Workhuman, believes it’s important that companies take into consideration the psychological safety of employees, citing the long-term benefits of frequent check-ins. “Establishing weekly or bi-weekly check-ins allows for higher levels of engagement, increased motivation, innovation and better performance, which can lead to major breakthroughs,” she said. “These are simple short-term acts that can have massive long-term benefits for the employer and employee. To make gratitude a habit, employers and managers should check in with employees more frequently and offer recognition to ensure workers feel heard, valued and respected in the workplace.”
In today’s culture, talented employees seek supportive work environments where empathy and compassion are the norm. Although there’s no magic pill for CEOs and team leaders to know the hidden emotional burdens employees or peers carry on a daily basis, employers across the country—from Goldman Sachs to Starbucks—have begun to re-evaluate how they approach employee mental health. “We all owe a debt of gratitude to public figures speaking up about their mental health issues, because they empower everyday people to speak up as well” Albrecht concluded. “We do not know what they have gone through. It’s a sign of strength to know when to ask for help.”