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Most employees think it’s OK to talk about mental health at work. Some still don’t do it, survey finds

<i>LaylaBird/E+/Getty Images</i><br/>Thirty-seven percent of employees polled in January cited their
LaylaBird/E+/Getty Images
Thirty-seven percent of employees polled in January cited their "mental health" as a source of stress for them.

By Jeanne Sahadi, CNN

New York (CNN) — World events, work problems, illness, financial issues — there are plenty of unhappy stressors that can harm an employee’s mental health.

“People are coming (into work) with a lot more than what is on their to-do list. Those stresses can affect how they’re feeling and how they perform on the job,” said Barb Solish, the national director of innovation at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which seeks to dispel “negative attitudes, beliefs, and stereotypes that society holds about individuals who experience mental health conditions.”

But not everyone feels safe talking about what ails them. A new poll commissioned by NAMI of more than 2,000 working adults in the United States found that nearly three-quarters (74%) of employees indicated that it is appropriate to discuss mental health concerns at work, but only 58% say they would personally feel comfortable doing so.

“The most common reasons employees cited for feeling uncomfortable discussing their mental health at work were stigma or judgment, no one else talking about their mental health, and not wanting to seem weak,” NAMI said in a release.

The poll, conducted in early January, also found that a vast majority of employees say direct managers (86%), human resources (85%) and senior leaders (78%) are responsible for “helping employees feel comfortable discussing mental health at work.”

From stress to burnout

Respondents were also asked to identify what had been a source of stress for them in the past six months.

The most common response was “the state of the world” (68%), followed by “your job” (48%), “your finances” (45%), “your personal life” (41%), “your physical health” (40%) and “your mental health” (37%).

More than half of the respondents (52%) reported feeling burnt out at some point in the past year because of their jobs, with more than a third (36%) saying they felt their mental health suffered due to work demands.

“Employees who are less comfortable talking about their mental health at work are more likely to report feeling burnout and their mental health suffering because of work in the past year,” NAMI said.

Employers are taking note

The pandemic, growing social and political polarization, geopolitical violence and concerns about high inflation and climate change have raised employers’ awareness of their workers’ mental health concerns, according to HR consulting firm Mercer.

Mercer found that two-thirds (67%) of employers have said they consider depression and anxiety a concern at work, with 21% citing it as a serious concern, in its most recent health benefits survey of organizations with at least 500 employees. Roughly the same share (68%) said job-related stress is a concern and 59% cited financial-related stress.

In response, “nearly half of employers have conducted anti-stigma campaigns to help employees feel comfortable utilizing behavioral health services,” Mercer said in its analysis. And, it noted, roughly a third of employers are training managers “to recognize behavioral health concerns so they can connect employees to resources before the concerns become acute.”

That would be a plus in employees’ eyes, judging from the NAMI survey, which focused on workers at a broader sweep of organizations (those with 100 or more on staff) than Mercer. Four in five people surveyed by NAMI said mental health training would be a positive for workplace culture, but only half said their employers offer it.

Such training can teach direct managers, executives and individual contributors how to identify signs that someone may be struggling with a mental health problem.

“If you see a change in how they feel, act, look or think [for at least] two weeks, it may be time to start a conversation with a coworker or a direct report,” Solis said. “You don’t have to be a clinician to talk about mental health.”

And training also can make everyone more aware of the mental health benefits on offer at the organization, so anyone who needs help can be more readily directed to those resources.

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