People, Place, Purpose: An Employer’s Role in Employee Mental Health

BY Keren Dinkin | January 24, 2024

For Nivati Founder and CEO Amelia Wilcox, the issue of mental health hits close to home. When she discovered that her sixteen-year-old was struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts, she became acquainted with the difficult realities of mental health. 

“She had to undergo a whole year of intensive treatment outside of our home,” Wilcox said. “This was one of the hardest and most gut wrenching experiences that I have ever had, and it actually triggered some of my own issues with anxiety.” 

According to the American Psychological Association, 81% of workers consider mental health support an essential factor when looking for a new job. Even college students are looking for colleges with strong mental health support programs. 

Wilcox approaches the subject of employee mental health with a level of passion and empathy that can only come from someone who knows just how important it is. She spoke about the important topic in a recent thought leadership spotlight at From Day One’s January virtual conference.

A Brief Timeline of Corporate Mental Health

Wilcox started with a simplified timeline of corporate mental health: How it started and how we got to where we are today.  

It all began in the 1930s with employee assistance programs (EAPs), which were a response to workplace alcoholism. Over time, EAPs became the industry standard for HR to have in place for employees, and they've seen little innovation or change in the last 90 years.

Then, during the 2000s, EAPs were considered to be part of mental health support at work. That essentially checked the box for HR, and it was good enough for most companies. In the 2010s, in many offices, mental health benefits took the form of distractions like ping pong tables and video games. Things like onsite massage and nap rooms provided distractions from work to give the brain a break to refresh, and it worked for a while.

Then came 2020, when the world was on fire. We learned that mental health is real; it affects everyone, and it needs some serious attention. But people still weren’t quite sure what to do about it.  In 2021 and 2022 trends like the great resignation and quiet quitting became prevalent to a workforce that felt failed by their companies. Employees became less connected, less engaged, less appreciated, and ultimately overworked.

“I know it’s controversial to talk about it, but what I think is really cool about this phase is that workers really started to revolt against the hustle culture and set their own boundaries,” Wilcox said.

The Present and Future

Then came 2023, during which eggs reached upwards of $6 a dozen in different parts across the U.S.. Inflation peaked at over 8%, and employees started adding financial stress to the growing list of mental health challenges they were experiencing. During this time, some forward-thinking companies started to get ahead of quiet quitting by proactively addressing boundaries and culture in the workplace. 

For the past 90 years, mental health support at work has stayed roughly the same. Before 2020, the focus was mainly on pre-existing and diagnosable conditions. But over the last four years, we’ve seen that focus start to evolve very rapidly. It includes all of us; it’s not just people who have diagnosed mental illnesses—it’s everyone. 

The Road to Recovery

So, how do we shift work from being a source of burnout and mental health challenges to becoming a source of mental health support? Dr. Thomas Insel, who wrote Healing: Our Path from Mental Illness to Mental Health, forwards some powerful methods to reverse the mental health crisis that we’re in the middle of.

According to Dr. Insel, the road to recovery comprises three Ps: people, place, and purpose. With those three structures in place, people experiencing mental illness can experience the support and care they deserve. 

People

Connection and belonging are essential for everyone. In the workplace, that means employers have to find ways to foster this positive social interaction, and ensure the company culture is conducive to connection-building. 

For example, in “Blue Zones,” or areas where people consistently live to 100-years-old, one of the most common components is a strong sense of community connection and belonging. So, not only can this help with morale and employee mental health, but having that connection can help people live longer.

Place

Place is about the environment. It can be virtual or your physical environment in the office. It’s the space employees work, and has to be where they feel physically, emotionally, and psychologically safe. 

One of the best ways to build psychological safety is to promote vulnerability, leadership needs to be involved in this to have an impact. Leaders should be able to discuss their struggles and what helps them. That allows people to feel safe and start to open up. 

Purpose

(photo from thought leadership spotlight session)

All humans need to feel a sense of purpose. In the workplace, this translates to employees knowing what they do matters. 

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has also defined workplace well-being as one of his top six priorities as surgeon general. His ‘five essentials’  framework aptly illustrates the correlation between the various factors that impact workplace wellbeing.

Both the three P’s and the ‘Five Essentials’ tell a very similar narrative: the ultimate goal is to bring the workers’ voice back into the workplace. The bottom line is that the whole organization requires a cultural shift to put this in place and genuinely have a safe and supportive culture for mental health at work, says Wilcox.

Editor’s note: From Day One thanks our partner, Nivati, for sponsoring this thought leadership spotlight.

Keren's love for words saw her transition from a corporate employee into a freelance writer during the pandemic. After having made her mark as a Top Rated Writer with over 2000 positive reviews in the extremely competitive Upwork space, and having been featured on various magazines and publications, Keren has now moved on to bigger and better with her own digital marketing agency aptly named Epic Owl. When she is not at her desk whipping up compelling narratives and sipping on endless cups of coffee, you can find her curled up with a book, playing with her dog, or pottering about in the garden.


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