Supporting mental health and well-being in the workplace


The many disruptions in the way we live and work that were a byproduct of the pandemic have resulted in increased awareness related to the prevalence of mental health issues in the workplace. Stress, anxiety and other mental health conditions are now recognized as significant issues for employees at all levels.


In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially acknowledged burnout as an occupational phenomenon “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Since then, the WHO has supported efforts by employers to focus on building a workplace culture that supports mental health and well-being.


Because it affects productivity and job satisfaction, mental health has a direct impact on the bottom line for employers. According to the WHO, depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1 trillion every year in reduced productivity.


“In addition to the normal pressures of business, we experience pressures of life and relationships,” said Grant Thornton National Managing Principal for Healthcare David Tyler at the recent Grant Thornton Executive Forum on Employee Mental Health and Well-being in the Workplace. “We’re all working in a difficult economic environment; COVID-19 continues to lurk; there’s uncivil discourse on the national stage and global trauma. These pressures impact all of us.”




State of Work in America survey trends


According to Grant Thornton’s 2023 State of Work in America survey, employees are not faring well due to a long list of challenges — including long hours, heavy workloads and people shortages. Well over half of the survey respondents indicated that they had experienced burnout in the past year, with 53% indicating mental and emotional stress as the top reason.


“In fact, one in four respondents believes the situation has become worse since our last survey,” said Grant Thornton Director of Growth Advisory Margaret Belden. “There’s a sentiment that mental health and wellness is declining, even though we’re years past the implementation of hybrid work environments in response to the pandemic.”


“We’re still feeling the effects of COVID,” said Dr. Rebekah Lemmons, Youth Villages Managing Director of Clinical Services. Since the beginning of the pandemic, many people have lost or left their jobs. Others have adapted to drastically different cultural shifts in work settings. For some, back-to-back Zoom calls have led to negative health impacts and increased burnout. Additionally, parents have felt the pressures of school closures and a lack of childcare, coupled with isolation.




A challenge for business leaders


Creating a nurturing a workplace culture that acknowledges and addresses the pressures that employees face can go a long way toward mitigating mental health risks. “Understanding that you need to be well to do well, many organizations are putting their efforts, time, energy and money into wellness initiatives,” said Lemmons. “But putting that into practice can be difficult.”


Changing the workplace culture is an uphill battle, especially when you consider that nearly half of the respondents to the State of Work in America survey said they did not believe their organization would act to help improve their well-being and safety.


“On the leadership level, it’s important to make sure you’re modeling good wellness practices, providing continuing education on wellness and self-care, for example, or integrating programs like yoga and nutrition classes,” Lemmons continued. “At the organization level, it’s critical to make sure that the wellness and mental health practices you institute stick, so that you can achieve the best version of employees and leaders.”




A new look at compensation and benefits


According to the State of Work in America survey, job security and benefits have joined pay and advancement opportunities as the main reasons people stay in their jobs. When employees feel valued, they have more positive attitudes about work and the right compensation plan is often a key aspect of that feeling. In today’s job market, more employers are aligning their compensation with market trends to increase their ability to attract the best candidates.


“We have seen a significant increase in how dollars have been spread out, especially in the last two years,” said Grant Thornton National Managing Principal of Human Capital Services Eric Gonzaga. “Now, there’s a lot of attention being paid to adjustments to market increases. They’re not going up as much as before, but there is significant diligence in understanding what market pay is because it’s simply table stakes.”


Beyond fair compensation, strategic organizations are customizing their benefit packages. “Because retirement and health and welfare are issues that are popping up as almost as important as compensation, more organizations are customizing competitive benefits packages to meet the wants and needs of employees and the strategic objectives of the organization,” Gonzaga added. “Many organizations are adopting longer parental leaves, for example. Success-sharing incentives are coming back, recognizing the need to incentivize employees equitably and ensuring that everyone has bought into the mission of the organization.”


Yet not all employees are satisfied with their current benefits packages. “According to our survey, the majority of employees still don’t feel their benefits packages are differentiated,” said Belden. “That makes sense, because many of the elements of a benefits program may not be relevant to every employee. It highlights the need to understand what’s important to them.”




Today’s hybrid work environments


While it is clear that the flexible work models introduced during the pandemic are here to stay, the State of Work in America survey found that, while employees still highly value hybrid work arrangements, they are increasingly finding value in coming into the office to work.


“The hybrid shift comes with strengths and weaknesses,” said Gonzaga. “Some employees prefer remote or virtual work, while others may find it more stressful because they value engagement. As a result, we as leaders need to be more intentional to make sure we continue to enable rich and connected relationships. That can be accomplished with tools like FaceTime, virtual teams, and Zoom meeting forums, but we also need to be intentional as we determine what works best for each person. We must be thoughtful and strategic with our resources to keep up engagement — and be flexible and realistic.”




Creating a culture of caring


The State of Work in America survey found that nearly half (47%) of employees don’t feel comfortable speaking out. “We have to provide support and draw that out,” said Belden.


“We need to make sure we provide a community of care. Leaders need to be transparent, vulnerable, and courageous,” said Lemmons. “Making sure that leadership is attuned and emotionally intelligent is essential to the vitality and health of individuals and the organization.”


“Empathy is the new qualifier for leadership in the future,” Belden added.


“After all, a company is made up of people,” said Tyler. “If we bring together a cadre of people who really care, we can make a difference for employees and the organization alike. After all, there are business benefits to doing the right thing. If we can get started on the path to a people-first approach, taking a collaborative approach to solving problems, it can be an exciting journey for everyone.”


For more exploration of health and well-being in the workplace, sign up for a rebroadcast of our executive forum discussion.



Eric Gonzaga

Eric Gonzaga is a Principal and practice leader for the Human Capital Services (HCS) group in Minneapolis.

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