We spend around two thirds of our waking lives at work. Yet those same workplaces can cause stress, worry, and anxiety. And despite them being places of familiarity, they are not always places of psychological safety, and when those mental health worries get too much, it can be hard to speak up and get support.
In our research All Worked Up we found that around 40% of employees around the world have moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. And an astonishing half of these employees presenting with mental health conditions have not spoken to a professoinal about it, citing stigma, embarrassment, no time, and a lack of education as the reasons.
But neither are they speaking to their employers. 6 out of 10 of the employees who stated that their employers weren’t aware of their anxiety also screened positive for anxiety. 5 out of 10 of the employees who stated that their employers weren’t aware of their depression also screened positive for depression. A siginificant proportion also hadn’t told their managers about their sleeping problems (26%) and social anxiety (23%).
In our research three quarters (73% of employees in the US and 81% in the UK) said that they would prefer to use a clinically validated app with self help exercises like Wysa, than speak to HR about their mental health. And only 1 in 8 in the UK and 1 in 4 in the US would take a mental health day, with most choosing to either take paid time off, blame physical health, or plough on regardless, which causes issues such as burnout and presenteeism.
Wysa’s research is backed up by studies and experience around the world. The Harris Poll in 2022 found that more than half of global employees (58%) say they aren’t comfortable discussing their mental health at work. A 2023 study from the University of Melbourne found that people who experience mental health problems face stigma, which is one of the reasons that they find it hard to speak out. A study in Holland discovered that despite rarely having a negative experience, nearly two thirds (64%) of employers would be reluctant to hire a candidate with a mental health condition.
There are a number of factors that may influence the decision to disclose mental health conditions. It depends on how it influences the day to day job, what benefits and reasonable adjustments come from disclosing it, and the psychological relief that comes with honesty.
Although people fear negative consequences of being open about their mental health, and raise concerns that it could alter the work environment, affect career development, and hold them back resulting in financial stress, research suggests that generally speaking workplaces are supportive – especially when they have an organizational culture that makes it a priority to support workers.
In 2023 a paper that Arizona State University published showed that workers with severe mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder who had disclosed their diagnoses reported more support and tolerance at work. A study of Dutch adults showed that more than two thirds (64%) of employees who disclosed their condition had a positive experience, compared to just one in 10 (9%) who had a negative experience.
5 benefits of disclosing mental health
Being open about your mental health can foster understanding and compassion from supervisors and colleagues. They might be more accommodating if they understand your needs and challenges. When employees understand how a team member’s mental health could be impacting their work, they will be more understanding and tolerant, and find ways to enhance team effectiveness.
When employees speak up about their mental health it can help them manage stress that might have otherwise negatively affected their working day. Rather than have a secret, they are able to speak honestly and find ways to alleviate any strains. This can help them make fewer mistakes as they have less stress in their life, and improve their overall employee experience, making them more likely to stay with the company in the long term.
Creativity and innovation
In a psychologically safe workplace the levels of interpersonal risk taking are higher, which can drive innovation and creativity in the workplace, pushing the business forward to achieve more, as studies have shown. And repeatedly we see that more inclusive workplaces are more successful workplaces, in terms of innovation, connectedness, and even financial performance. A culture that is supportive and where wellbeing is of high importance isn’t contradictory to performance – in fact it can harness good decision making, contribute to team creativity, and drive innovation.
The more people speak about mental health, the more normalized it will be, helping to reduce stigma. Some organizations have Employee Resource Groups set up to specifically further the cause of lowering stigma in the workplace, reduce overall wellbeing, and foster psychological safety. One of the biggest challenges to people getting support is stigma, so the more that we challenge this, the more employers are increasing the likelihood of intervention at a crucial stage.
It is a legal requirement that if there are certain elements to an employee’s working life such as hours, shift patterns, chairs and equipment that would support mental or physical health, the employer is obliged to make them – which are known as reasonable adjustments. But they cannot do so without being informed.
6 ways to support people to speak up about mental health
In an organization where everyone from senior leaders to team members recognize that mental health is taken seriously, people will be more likely to speak up. This goes beyond a mental health policy, and includes offering mental health support such as Wysa, prioritizing team psychological safety, and listening to employees. If team members sense that wellbeing is not really a priority, or lip service is just being paid, they will feel less inclined to disclose mental health conditions, which could have repurcussions on performance and employee engagement.
The shared belief that wellbeing matters should be something that HR leaders, managers and every worker feels, and as such they are contributing to an organizational culture that puts people first.
Offer employee assistance programs
In order to help individuals with mental health, there needs to be resources and tools made available – and these need to be accessible. Typically only 7% of employees take up employee assistance programs, whereas Wysa has a much higher engagement rate due to the support they offer, its discrete nature, and evidence based approach that works.
Training and education
Training and education around mental health conditions and their impact on work and and wellbeing should be something that everyone in the business receives. This might include webinars, conversation facilitation training, educational resources and more. By having leaders and employees feeling comfortable to have those difficult conversations, it sends a message that people are knowledgeable and well equipped, and that any discussions and disclosures will be coming from a well informed place. Familiarise yourself with policies relating to mental health and wellbeing and ensure that leaders understand where to find these, their content, and what will happen if they ask for support. .
Prepare to listen
As an employer who has done your research and training, you may have an overview of what mental health conditions there are. However, it doesn’t mean that you understand the individual, their experience, and their unique needs. Practise active listening, ask questions to clarify, and allow the individual to share anything and everything that they feel comfortable doing so. Ask them how it affects them at work, what impact their work has on their wellbeing, and what you can do as a responsible employer to help them. When people know that they will be heard and listened to in a supportive way it will help make what could be a difficult conversation feel much easier. Create psychological safety by facilitating an open door policy where anyone can come and speak about their wellbeing and mental health, without fear of judgement or stigma.
It’s much easier to support employees at an earlier stage than wait until they reach crisis point. Proactive prevention is a better approach for everyone – your employees, your teams and your business. It can reduce the costs that come with offering healthcare, presenteeism, absenteeism and turnover. Limited support means people delay access. Symptoms worsen and recovery takes longer. Every year, unaddressed depression and anxiety cost $580 per employee in absenteeism, lost productivity and turnover. That’s $30 million a year for an employer with 50,000 people.
Mental Health America’s fourth annual workplace report found that although nearly half of employees (47%) know of their company’s mental health services, only 38% would be comfortable using their company’s services, demonstrating that more needs to be done to make people feel comfortable. And 8 in 10 who Wysa spoke to in All Worked Up would chose an app over HR.
There are numerous benefits to using technology as a tool to address employee wellbeing. Wysa is discrete and convenient, meaning that it works for people at any time and anywhere, even during the working day. It’s ideal for people who maybe work nights or shift work, who may struggle to attend traditional therapy appointments.
It’s evidence-based and proven to improve depression and anxiety scores by an average of 31%. It’s also personalized. Wysa’s AI-first approach enables employees to improve their mental health before symptoms become severe, by understanding an individual’s needs and guiding them through interactive cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) exercises.
And it reduces risk. Wysa’s clinically safe AI encourages users to take additional support, whenever it’s needed, by guiding them towards Wysa’s human coaching, employer benefits programmes or national crisis lines.