5 Ways Companies Are Supporting Employees’ Mental Health and Preventing Burnout

May 20, 2020

woman working from home with dog

Since 1949, May has been observed as Mental Health Awareness Month in the U.S. to shine a light on mental illness. And the conversation feels especially urgent this year. 

A recent global study of more than 2,700 employees found that 75% feel more socially isolated as a result of coronavirus, with 67% experiencing higher stress levels, 57% feeling more anxious, and 53% dealing with greater emotional exhaustion. And with many employees working 2-3 hours longer per day than they did before March 11 (when some companies made the call to work from home) — combined with additional pressures like caring for sick loved ones — the risk of burnout and mental illness is on the rise.

This could have a significant impact on productivity and absenteeism. The World Health Organization estimates that depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1 trillion in lost productivity annually. But more importantly, providing mental health support for employees when they need it can help them lead happier, healthier lives. It may even save lives.

While mental health is undoubtedly a very personal matter, employees shouldn’t have to deal with it alone. Here are just a few recent ways companies have stepped up to support employees’ mental health and keep burnout at bay. 

1. Providing counseling sessions and coaching

At a time when the use of emergency mental health hotlines is rising steadily, some companies are making it easier for their employees to access professional help when they need it. 

As part of the larger mental health initiative that the company launched last year, Starbucks is giving hundreds of thousands of employees access to 20 free sessions with a mental health therapist or coach. These sessions are available to all U.S. employees who work more than 20 hours a week, at no cost to the employee, and can also be accessed by their family members.

RedDoorz, a Singapore-based budget hotel booking platform, is also providing online counseling sessions led by certified counselors and psychologists. The program, called Hope Hotline, is not only open to the company’s own staff, but also to employees who work at its partner hotels. Amit Saberwal, CEO of RedDoorz, says he hopes to “spread positivity and optimism” within the travel and hospitality industries, which have experienced “major disruptions” as a result of the coronavirus.

At software services firm Clearvision, three HR team members who took a mental health first aid course last year have made themselves available for employees to contact if they need support. The company also has an employee-led group called Hearts and Minds, which hosts a weekly video call where coworkers can talk about how they feel. 

“It’s been quite surprising how much people have opened up about how they’re feeling,” says Kathryn Tombs, HR director at Clearvision. “I try to get on the calls every time and I can pick up the pointers if someone’s not feeling great. Then I’ll contact them afterwards.”

2. Giving employees access to meditation apps and online mental health resources

Various companies have given employees access to wellbeing apps and other online resources designed to reduce stress and anxiety — many of which have seen an uptick in visitors over the past few months

In the UK, for example, the National Health Service (NHS) has partnered with Headspace, a popular meditation and mindfulness app, to provide free subscriptions to all employees. And in Ireland, the Bank of Ireland has teamed up with a wellbeing expert to create a 10-week program that includes online seminars, live feeds, and interactive sessions.

Unilever, meanwhile, has launched a 14-day mental wellbeing resilience program for its 62,000 global employees. Utilizing tools created by the Resilience Research Center, the program will cover a range of topics, including dealing with negative thoughts and reinventing routines during lockdown.

With exercise proven to reduce anxiety and depression, professional services firm EY is offering live daily workouts online through its EY Exercise program. Employees can also attend seminars covering other aspects of holistic wellbeing, including nutrition and sleep. To keep everyone posted about what’s available to them, the company sends a weekly notification. 

3. Allowing greater flexibility and more time off for those who need it

For employees caring for their family members, flexibility is incredibly important right now for their mental health. For others, stepping away from work for a little while is a vital aspect of self-care. To help their teams feel comfortable taking a break when they need it, some companies are offering more flexible work options and paid time off. 

Kickstand Communications, a public relations, content marketing, and social media agency, is allowing employees to work a more flexible schedule. They can also take three hours per week to reset and recharge. And at social storytelling platform Wattpad, employees’ are encouraged to work flexible hours and even compress their workweek down to four days if they choose. 

Goldman Sachs has given all employees an extra 10 days of family leave to handle “unique personal circumstances related to the profound impact of Covid-19.” This covers a range of different needs, including looking after sick loved ones and homeschooling children.

Microsoft is also offering extended leave benefits to all employees who are working parents. Its 12-week Paid Pandemic School and Childcare Closure Leave benefit can be used on a continuous, reduced, or intermittent basis to create as much flexibility as possible. 

4. Promoting healthy work-life balance habits 

When home doubles as the office, employees can have a tougher time switching off. Over the past few months, for example, VPN provider Surfshark has seen spikes in usage between midnight and 3 am, evidence that the barriers of the workday are beginning to erode. As a result, some companies are making an effort to help employees unplug, even if it’s just a gentle nudge from a manager.

At ServerCentral Turing Group, a cloud consultancy based in Chicago, managing partner and CTO Eric Dynowski is telling his people to turn off all their communication and collaboration tools when they’re done for the day.

Toronto-based investment management firm WealthSimple is also telling staff to unplug and take breaks. As a part of its workplace mental health initiative, employees are encouraged to treat switching off as a scheduled event, including putting lunch breaks on their calendar, rather than working through them, and booking social hours with team members at the end of the day. 

Some companies are going a step further — making it impossible for employees to send emails after hours. Volkswagen began doing this years ago. Between 6:15 pm and 7 am, the company’s internal servers won’t route emails to individual accounts, so one can’t be tempted to work into the night.

5. Encouraging leaders to talk openly about mental health

With mental health still stigmatized in many professional environments, employees may feel uncomfortable speaking up when they need help. That’s why one of the most powerful things leaders can do is to speak openly about what they’re going through. 

At global creative agency We Are Social, leaders recognized early on that it was important not to convey that “this is great, let’s all high-five.” Instead, they opened up about their own struggles and focused on understanding the unique circumstances of every employee to better support them.

“After Boris [Johnson, UK Prime Minister] issued his message about the lockdown, I put a note out about feeling overwhelmed,” says managing partner Lucy Doubleday. “And our chief executive did a talk on Friday and said he was finding it really difficult and struggling with not seeing people. And that he wasn’t a good self-motivator at home. So, he was showing that vulnerability.”

LinkedIn’s head of mindfulness and compassion programs, Scott Shute, shares similar sentiments. “Leading with compassion is critical at this time,” he says. “I want to ensure my colleagues that I care for them as people, so I always take the time to just check-in, ask what they need, and most of all, listen and be there for them.”

Scott also leads a daily meditation session online that’s open to LinkedIn employees and anyone else who’d like to join. He makes accessibility easy by posting a schedule and links to the sessions on his LinkedIn profile every week.

Leaders at Packard Culligan Water are also initiating conversations about mental health. During a company-wide video call, one of the company’s owners shared his own mental health activities as a way to encourage employees to practice self-care and use the various resources available to them. Other leaders have shared testimonials to connect with employees on a personal level about the issue.

Final thoughts

People may feel especially isolated right now, and even something as simple a kind note or check-in call can show employees you care. But keep in mind that mental health support shouldn’t end when stay-at-home guidelines are relaxed. 

Let your team know you’ll be there for them in the long run and consider extending any recent mental health benefits indefinitely. Taking care of your mental health isn't always easy, but your employees shouldn't have to bear all the weight alone.

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