September 1, 2021

Employee Mental Health: What Employers and Recruiters Need to Know — and Do — Now

Across the country, businesses of all sizes are striving to adapt their recruitment and retention practices to the new normal of the post-pandemic job market. Several factors precipitated the ongoing Great Resignation and mass movement of employees to new jobs, and they are invariably tied to the effects of the global pandemic on employee mental health.

When the pandemic started, leaders understood it would be a difficult time for employees — but the stress and uncertainty aren’t over yet. COVID-19 cases are on the rise once again; burnout remains high. Employers are bringing people back to the office, but this is more of an upheaval than a return to normalcy for many workers.

When the first wave of COVID-19 hit, employers went to great lengths to support employees and show them how valued they were. These behaviors kept many employees engaged and retained throughout the worst stages of the pandemic — and they are just as critical now as they were last spring.

Many employees now looking for new jobs are driven by desires for both control and validation. If employers recognize and meet those needs, they’ll have an edge when it comes to keeping their best workers on staff in this turbulent talent market.

The Current State of Employee Mental Health

Burnout is pervasive in the American workforce. According to Gallup’s Employee Burnout: Causes and Cures report, 76 percent of employees feel burned out some of the time, and 28 percent are “very often” or “always” burned out — and that was before the pandemic hit. The survey also found that employees who are burdened with regular feelings of burnout are 63 percent more likely to take a sick day and 23 percent more likely to have an emergency room visit.

Nor is burnout an affliction of frontline workers only. A survey conducted by my company, LifeWorks, in partnership with Deloitte Canada found that 82 percent of senior leaders feel mentally and physically exhausted by their work. Fifty-nine percent say they are unable to relax or pause activity, and 49 percent have trouble sleeping. It comes as no surprise that 51 percent of the survey respondents have considered leaving, retiring, or downshifting from their current roles.

The prevalence of burnout among organizational leaders makes it increasingly difficult for companies to provide employees with the support they need, and a one-size-fits-all approach to well-being simply doesn’t cut it.

For example, a recent survey by The Conference Board found each generation has different views on the best way to approach hybrid work. Fifty-five percent of millennials and 45 percent of Gen. X-ers question the wisdom of returning to the office now, while only 36 percent of baby boomers are concerned. Additionally, McKinsey found that women, LGBTQ+ employees, and people of color felt disproportionate levels of stress during the pandemic and were more likely to report acute challenges to their mental health, workloads, and job security.

While an organization can’t win every battle for top talent, it can set itself apart by offering employees well-being benefits that equip them with the tools they need to manage mental and physical wellness right now. A recent Gallup poll found that employees across generations prioritize employers that care about employee well-being when evaluating job opportunities. For millennials and Gen. Z-ers, support for employee wellness is the most important factor of all.

Recruiters have an opportunity to bring top talent to their companies by showing candidates how their organizations make holistic well-being a top priority. Leaders, too, can help retain and nurture talent by providing leading mental health services and seeking employee input (then acting on that input) on a regular basis.

Taking Action to Support Employee Wellness

While overwork can be a major factor in burnout, the earlier Gallup’s Employee Burnout: Causes and Cures report shows that how employees experience their workloads is a primary cause of burnout as well. According to Gallup, employees perform their best work when they feel high levels of inspiration, motivation, and support. Organizations can ensure these factors are present by placing holistic well-being at the center of their business strategies.

How can you bring this to life in your organization? There are several key components:

1. Address All Stages of Care

Organizations need to have comprehensive well-being strategies that support employee wellness at all stages of the continuum of care and not just in times of crisis. Employees should have access to wellness services when they need them, and those services should address the holistic needs of mental, physical, financial, and social well-being.

2. Communicate Well-Being Support Across the Entire Employee Experience

Well-being programs should be discussed at every step of the employee experience, even before a candidate is hired.

Make wellness part of your employer branding. Highlight all that you offer employees in advertising, job descriptions, careers site, brochures, and other recruitment materials, and explain why employee well-being matters to your organization.

Once hired, employees should receive regular communication about the company’s well-being program. If employees or prospects don’t know what’s on offer, they won’t be able to benefit from the solutions that are in place for them.

3. Ask and Adjust

Seek regular feedback from employees on how your organization can improve its well-being programs. Find out what is working well and what needs a lift. Candidates can also provide insights on the benefits you offer, so ask for their input and listen carefully.

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on our lives. As we slowly come out of it, business leaders have a powerful opportunity to reshape their organizations for the better. Recruiters can also play a pivotal role by educating organizations on what employees are seeking from a well-being standpoint, highlighting the benefits on offer, and finding suitable matches between what candidates want and what companies are providing.

Paula Allen is global leader of research and total well-being and senior vice president of LifeWorks.

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Paula Allen is the global leader of research and total well-being and a senior vice president at LifeWorks. In this role, she manages the research agenda for LifeWorks, which includes primary research, exploratory data science, research collaborations, and meta-analyses. Given her focus on industry-leading research, Paula also leads LifeWorks' thought leadership and is co-chair of the organization's product and innovation strategy. Paula is a member of the Women's College Hospital's Board of Directors, a member of the Virtual Learning Advisory Board consulting on the public sector's post-secondary online learning strategy, a member of the International Women's Forum, a Civic Action Diversity Fellow mentor, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Club of Toronto. Previously, she was co-chair of Civic Action's Champions Council on workplace mental health and a member of the Income Security Working Group providing advice to the Ontario Government on issues relating to disability and income support.
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