Why Investing in Mental Health Should Be a Priority for Leaders

If the COVID-19 pandemic has done nothing else, it’s helped organizations realize the importance of mental health in the workplace. As we enter the third year of the pandemic, Brantlee Underhill shares her perspective on why mental health is such a critical workplace issue for project professionals and what organizations and employees can do to stay mentally fit.

Written by Brantlee Underhill • 5 May 2022


Image by Jared Rice on Unsplash

With more than 6 million deaths and counting, the COVID-19 virus has exacted a terrible toll on our physical wellbeing. But what about its impact on our mental health? How has COVID affected our mental wellbeing and altered the world of work?

An early study conducted by Qualtrics in April 2020 paints a grim picture. More than two in five respondents (41.6 percent) said their mental health had declined since the outbreak of COVID-19. The number of people rating their mental health at the low end of the scale (3 or under on a 10-point scale) had doubled since the outbreak began.

More recent data confirm this. Seventy-six percent of respondents in Mindshare Partners’ 2021 Mental Health at Work Report said they had experienced at least one symptom of a mental health condition in the preceding year, up from 59 percent in 2019. While younger and under-represented employees were most affected, mental health challenges are now the norm among employees across all organizational levels, including C-suite executives.

Project management professionals are hardly immune. At PMI, we’re hearing reports of increased stress among project teams as they cope with shifting budgets, supply chain issues and the rapid pace of digital transformation initiatives.

And mental stress is having a very real impact on worker productivity. More than a quarter of the respondents (28.3 percent) in the Qualtrics study reported difficulty concentrating, while one in five (20.0 percent) said it took them longer to perform tasks.

For employers, addressing these mental health issues just makes good business sense. According to the 2021 Mental Health at Work Report, workers who felt supported with their mental health needs were less likely to underperform or miss work and more likely to report higher levels of job satisfaction and intentions to stay with the company.

Fostering better employee mental health comes down to creating a culture of wellbeing—supported by a benefits plan that balances both physical and mental health.

To start, employers need to create a baseline understanding of the state of their employees’ mental health, using new surveys that look specifically at mental health issues.

Employers also need to upskill their employees to deal more effectively with mental health challenges. This includes training employees on adopting good mental health habits and training managers to sensitize them to the issue and to help them actively listen to employee concerns.

But employers need to do more than listen. They must act on what they learn. That means culture change, including treating mental health as a priority, making meaningful policy changes such as extra paid time off and investing in DE&I programs that support hard-hit under-represented employee populations.

Most important, leaders need to think about what a sustainable workday looks like for their teams—especially if you’re managing a global team across multiple time zones and remote work locations. Flexibility today isn’t just about hybrid work arrangements; it’s about allowing employees to create a workday that accommodates the needs of the organization and the employees’ personal lives.

In addition to these employer actions, there are strategies employees can adopt to foster better mental health:

  • Find your “why.” It’s easier to feel fulfilled if you’re working toward a larger purpose. Think about why you’re doing what you’re doing and stay focused on that end result.
  • Learn how to de-stress. Whether it’s a physical workout, meditation or downtime with family, adopt the practices that help you protect your mental health. I like to say it’s not just how fast you can go from 0 to 60 but how fast you can go from 60 to 0.
  • Speak up. Employees are taking more responsibility for their mental health and raising their voices when they have needs. More employees are talking about mental health at work than in 2019, according to the 2021 Mental Health at Work Report study. Nearly two-thirds of respondents talked about their mental health to someone at work in the past year.

Focusing on employee mental health could have a profound effect on organizations and society more generally. Indeed, Gallup has found that career wellbeing is the foundation for improving other elements of an individual’s wellbeing, including their social, financial, physical and community sense of wellbeing. If there’s any silver lining to the COVID crisis, it’s that the pandemic has finally forced us to take our employees’ mental health as seriously as we do their physical health.

Brantlee Underhill headshot

Brantlee Underhill
Chief Community Officer and Interim Managing Director, North America | PMI

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