Businessolver Blog

Declining Mental Health Requires Employer Empathy

Declining Mental Health Requires Employer Empathy
Posted on Thursday, April 22, 2021 by Rae Shanahan

The parallel crises of dealing with COVID-19 and reckoning anew with our nation’s painful history of racial and social injustice has thrust mental health into the national spotlight.


In June 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 41% of Americans over age 18 struggled with mental health or substance abuse. Among them, 31% reported symptoms of anxiety and depression, compared to 11% the previous year. The same study found that 26% reported symptoms of trauma or a stressor-related disorder, 13% had started or increased substance use, and 11% had seriously considered suicide.

The HR community has long known about the impact of mental health issues on worker productivity, disability, absenteeism, and presenteeism. As early as 2003, depression alone cost U.S. employers up to $44 billion annually in lost productivity.

But the events of 2020 made investing in employee mental health about much more than protecting the bottom line. For many employers, their response to mental health needs in 2020 was viewed as a sincere and direct expression of workplace empathy.

Based on our 2021 State of Workplace Empathy data, our new white paper, Declining Mental Health Requires Employer Empathy, explores those expressions of empathy around mental health—and more importantly—how they are perceived by employees, HR professionals, and CEOs. Conducted by a third-party research firm in February, the study reveals:

  • Despite a greater urgency to address mental health, large majorities of the workforce report difficulty discussing it.
  • Organizations have an opportunity to bridge gaps in awareness and perceptions from the top down.
  • Providing certain benefits and promoting them to targeted populations is an opportunity to demonstrate empathy to key demographics, while the most popular benefits are now table stakes.

Let’s take a closer look at these insights.

Stigma Persists Around Talking About Mental Health at Work

While employees report a higher level of awareness of available mental health benefits in 2021, a considerable amount of stigma persists. Among CEOs, 96% say they have a safe environment to talk about mental health at work, but only 71% of HR professionals and 73% of employees agree. And 64% of employees say that reaching out to HR or management about a mental health issue would negatively impact their job security.

Perhaps the most troubling finding related to mental health in the 2021 study is respondents’ perceptions of those with mental illness. A staggering 66% of employees, 75% of HR professionals, and 82% of CEOs perceive that employers will view someone with mental health issues as a “burden.” By comparison, 36% of employed Americans with a physical disability encountered some type of workplace discrimination because of their disability.

Gaps Exist in Awareness and Perceptions of Mental Health Benefits

First, some good news: In 2021, 56% of employees say they were aware of mental health benefits and programs offered by their organization—a 10% increase over last year. That said, awareness is much higher among CEOs (74%) and HR professionals (64%). There’s also an awareness discrepancy around expanded mental health offerings due to the pandemic, with 94% of CEOs demonstrating awareness compared to 66% of employees.

There is also a gap between CEOs and employees in perceptions of how mental health is discussed in the workplace. As noted, 65% of employees believe there is open dialogue within their organization about the importance of mental health. Among CEOs, however, 89% believe this to be the case—a difference of 24 points. More CEOs (88%) also believe their organization conducts workshops or has training to educate employees about mental health, compared to only 59% of employees.

Diverse Preferences Reflect a Diverse Workforce

Some mental health benefits and programs are popular across the board. At or near the top of the list for employees, HR professionals, and CEOs is flexible work hours. Being encouraged to take breaks away from the work environment and open-door policies for face-to-face communication with management or HR representatives ranked high among employees and HR professionals. CEOs and HR professionals’ highest shared value was mental health vacation days.

Among Black employees, 93% prefer coverage options for mental health services through the employee benefits enrollment process. Compared to their white counterparts, Black employees place additional importance on access to onsite mental healthcare specialists (+15 points), workplace support groups (+13 points), and virtual sessions with a mental health specialist (+11 points).

Topping the list for Latinx employees at 94% is being encouraged to take breaks away from the work environment. This is followed closely (93%) by an EAP that provides supportive, diagnostic, referral, and counseling treatment services. Compared to their white counterparts, Latinx employees preferred onsite mental healthcare specialists (+17 points), wellness workshops that focus on mental and physical health (+7 points), and mental health vacation days (+4 points).

The biggest generational differences are seen among Gen Z—that population of the workforce born after 1997. Compared to other generations, fewer Gen Z employees say flexible work hours, an open-door policy, and frequent breaks are important, suggesting the newest generation to the workforce may consider these offerings to be table stakes. Gen Z employees—also known as digital natives—place greater importance on live video sessions with a specialist compared to Boomers (+15 points), Gen X (+4 points), and Millennials (+2 points).

What Can You Do?

This white paper does more than examine trends attitudes and perceptions of mental health benefits and programs as expressions of workplace empathy. It also offers five recommendations for employers to incorporate into a long-term strategy to achieve a more empathetic workplace, increase employee loyalty, and optimize employee productivity.

We’ll also discuss these recommendations during our panel discussion at our May 6 & 7 Vision Conference. Register now to reserve your place, it’s free, 100% virtual, and you’ll be able to hear more strategic discussions around mental health and more.