Mental Health in the Workplace: Legal Obligations and Best Practices for Employers

In recent years, employers have started recognizing the impact that mental health has on both individual employee well-being and overall company productivity. We’ve begun to trace straight lines from “good mental health” to factors like a positive work environment, satisfied employees, stellar company reputation, and reduced legal penalties, among other things.

Thus, employers have started focusing on addressing mental health issues in the workplace and providing resources to help employees manage their mental health. In this article, you’ll learn the importance of mental health at work, some workplace risks to mental health, how to support employees’ mental well-being, and the legal obligations of an employer for supporting mental health at work.



Understanding the importance of mental health at work

Picture this:

Kyrie is an employee in a fast-paced company, and he’s going through a divorce. Overwhelmed by the mounting stress of the drawn-out divorce proceedings and navigating co-parenting dynamics, Kyrie begins to experience a decline in performance. As his mental health deteriorates, he struggles to concentrate, meet deadlines, and engage effectively with his colleagues. Before long, Kyrie’s mood starts to affect his team members who find it hard to work well in a tense environment.

The importance of mental health at work extends beyond individual well-being, significantly influencing overall workplace dynamics and organizational performance. When employees face excessive stress, anxiety, and other mental health challenges, their ability to function optimally in the workplace is reduced. This can manifest as increased absenteeism, a nonchalant attitude to work, decreased productivity, and strained relationships with colleagues.

As in Kyrie’s case, the poor mental health of one employee can cause a ripple effect, disrupting team dynamics and organizational goals. The team may experience heightened tension, reduced cohesion, and a loss of trust due to the individual’s struggles. If this goes untreated, things can escalate and lead to more severe consequences such as burnout, turnover, and even legal liabilities for the company.

While an employer may not directly be the cause of their employees’ poor mental health, they are responsible, both morally and legally, for creating a work environment and providing the necessary resources to help employees going through mental health issues.

Employers are the leaders not just at the helm steering the company’s financial and operational strategies but are also key in shaping the organizational culture and environment that significantly affects employee mental health. Business decision-makers have the power and responsibility to influence policies and implement practices that prioritize mental well-being. By recognizing the direct link between employee mental health and productivity, they can champion initiatives that support mental health, such as flexible work schedules, mental health days, and access to counseling services.

“As an employer, I have the responsibility to provide a healthy work environment for my teams,” says Stefan Chekanov, the co-founder and CEO of Brosix. “This includes safeguarding my employees’ mental health just as I do their physical well-being. If I don’t take this commitment seriously, this can affect my business in many different ways: high turnover rates, a bad reputation, and potentially even legal issues.”

When a company invests in mental health initiatives, employees are more likely to feel more comfortable seeking assistance when facing difficulties. This positive environment fosters creativity, collaboration, and job satisfaction, which, in turn, leads to improved retention rates and heightened overall performance.

Identifying common workplace risks to mental health

In Kyrie’s case, the reason for his poor mental health is his ongoing divorce, which is an external causative agent that does not apply to all employees. There are, however, some negative phenomena that happen in the workplace that affect the mental health of most, if not all, employees. Here are some of them:

1.     Discrimination and harassment

Discriminating against employees based on factors like race, gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or any other protected characteristic can contribute to various mental health challenges, including:

  • Stress and anxiety. Employees who are exposed to discriminatory behaviors or environments may constantly feel on edge anticipating unfair treatment.
  • Depression. Persistent discrimination can trigger feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and inadequacy, potentially leading to depression.
  • Low self-esteem. Experiencing discrimination can erode an employee’s sense of self-worth, which in turn can impact overall mental well-being.
  • Isolation. Employees facing discrimination may feel isolated and alienated from their colleagues. This can contribute to constant feelings of loneliness, which can impact a person’s mental health.
  • Avoidance. In response to discrimination, some employees may withdraw some workplace interactions or avoid certain situations altogether as a coping mechanism.

2.     Work-life imbalance

Just like Kyrie, all employees have commitments and interests outside of work—spouses, children, extended family, hobbies, side hustles, etc. To maintain their mental well-being, employees have to strike a healthy balance between work and personal life.

However, some companies don’t make it convenient for their employees to do so. They have excessive workloads, long working hours, tight deadlines, and unrealistic expectations that can induce mental health challenges, including:

  • Increased stress levels. The pressure to meet work demands while having limited time for personal activities or relaxation can contribute to heightened stress levels.
  • Burnout. Employees who constantly feel overwhelmed by work demands without sufficient recovery time have a higher risk of experiencing emotional exhaustion, reduced professional efficacy, and a sense of cynicism or detachment.
  • Strained relationships. The lack of time for personal and social activities can strain relationships with family and friends. This strain contributes to feelings of isolation and can exacerbate mental health challenges.
  • Impact on physical health. Work-life imbalance makes it hard for employees to exercise, practice self-care, get adequate sleep, or hydrate properly. All of this can contribute to health issues, such as fatigue, headaches, and compromised immune function.
  • Difficulty switching off. Technology has made it easier for work to permeate personal life. So employees struggling with work-life imbalance can find it challenging to disconnect from work-related responsibilities outside of office hours, which can hinder relaxation and recovery.

3.     Negative internal culture

A negative work culture refers to an environment where unhealthy behaviors—such as disrespect, trust issues, bullying, toxic leadership, lack of support, and a general atmosphere that hinders seamless collaboration—prevail within an organization.

Working in a company with a negative internal culture can ruin the mental health of employees. Stefan Chekanov of Brosix explains this succinctly: “Harboring a negative internal culture can seriously impact how employees feel about their jobs. If you wake up on a work day with a sense of dread because you don’t like the environment, over time you’re going to start feeling miserable all the time. Work occupies most of our adult lives, and nobody should spend their days in a state of stress.”

4.     Lack of autonomy

As an employer, when you hire someone new, you should fully trust that the person is an expert at the role you hired them for. Taking away their autonomy and independence by micromanaging them is a great way to disempower your employees.

Employees who are subjected to a high level of scrutiny and constant supervision are often at risk of developing some mental health issues, including:

  • Anxiety. Employees may feel pressured to meet unrealistically high standards, fearing constant evaluation and the potential for criticism.
  • Low self-esteem. Micromanagement conveys a lack of trust in employees’ abilities to perform their tasks independently. This lack of trust can be demoralizing, leading to feelings of inadequacy and reduced self-confidence.
  • Lack of motivation. The constant supervision and lack of autonomy can make employees feel like their efforts are not appreciated. Thus, they lose their zeal and enthusiasm for work and engage less in the workplace than they normally would.
  • Impaired creativity. A micromanaged work environment stifles the ability to think creatively and inhibits employees from finding innovative solutions to challenges.

5.     Tight deadlines

Tight deadlines are something that many fast-growing startups and agencies have to deal with. Unfortunately, forcing employees to constantly deliver stellar work in a short amount of time is detrimental to their mental health.

Speaking on long hours and tight deadlines, Nikola Baldikov, the founder of Inbound Blogging explains: “In a small digital agency such as ours, it’s common to have high workloads, which means often churning long hours to meet deadlines. Recently a member of my team reached out and said they were struggling because they were overwhelmed by too many tasks.

To help relieve their workload, I had to delegate some of their tasks proportionally among the rest of the team.”

This is not exclusive to Nikola’s agency, though. Andrew Cussens, the owner of the film and photography studio, FilmFolk, has also noticed that the pressure of high-stakes project deadlines is one of the most threatening factors affecting employees’ mental health.

“During busy periods, it’s common for the team to work on up to half a dozen major projects at once—many that need to be finished expeditiously, often in overtime,” Andrew explains. “It’s obvious how this intensity can bring out the best in you, and how it can tear you apart. This pressure can heighten stress and anxiety; in candid internal research, 70 percent of staff we polled said they’d experienced feelings of being overwhelmed by stress at work. It’s an issue for us.”

6.     Poor communication

As an employer, you must keep your employees in the know about what’s going on in the company, your expectations, changes in policies, feedback, and organizational Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). When there are unclear instructions, inadequate feedback, and a lack of transparency, employees may feel confused, uncertain, and anxious. This can affect the quality of their work.

Poor communication can also cause:

  • Strained relationships. Poor communication can cause strained relationships between colleagues, and between employees and management.
  • Impaired team collaboration. Effective teamwork relies on clear communication. When communication is poor, team members will find it difficult to work cohesively, which can lead to a negative work environment.
  • Decreased job satisfaction. Inadequate communication can cause employees to feel disconnected from the organization’s goals and vision. When employees don’t understand how their work contributes to broader objectives, they may feel disinterested in work altogether.
  • Increased rumors and speculation. When communication is lacking, employees may resort to rumors and speculation to fill in the information gaps. This can lead to a culture of mistrust and uncertainty.

7.     Conflict

Conflict in the workplace refers to disagreements, disputes, or discord between individuals or groups within an organization. These conflicts can arise due to differences in opinions, goals, values, or interpersonal relationships, and they can create a hostile work environment if they go unchecked.

Workplace conflicts and bullying can have severe consequences for employee’s mental health including:

  • Increased stress level. Conflict often creates heightened tension, uncertainty, and pressure in the workplace, which can lead to stress.
  • Negative impact on team dynamics. Workplace conflict can disrupt team dynamics, leading to decreased collaboration and a lack of cohesion.
  • Decreased job satisfaction. The negative atmosphere and strained relationships caused by conflicts can make the work environment less enjoyable, diminishing employees’ overall satisfaction with their roles and the organization.
  • Reduced productivity. Employees involved in or affected by workplace conflict may find it difficult to concentrate on their tasks, which leads to reduced productivity and emotional distress.

How to support employee health and well-being

As Stefan Chekanov explained, an employer must create a positive work environment free of discrimination, harassment, conflict, bullying, and undue tension, so that employees can thrive. Employers should also provide resources that can help employees deal with stress and maintain their mental health. Here are some things employers can do to support employees:

1.   Be empathetic

Like all humans, employees get overwhelmed sometimes. As an employer, your job is to sympathize with your employees when they’re going through a hard time and figure out a way to alleviate their problems.

Lev Tretyakov, the CEO and Head of Sales at Fortador, advocates for employers to be empathetic. “Recently, an employee reached out to me, completely shattered and ready to quit. I slowly talked to her to calm down, gathered she had made a mistake, and her immediate superior yelled at and blamed her.

She explained that she had a sick child and was barely sleeping, and the fatigue caught up with her, and she made an error. After listening to her, I pointed out her mistake objectively, urged her to be more careful, and asked if she needed a few days. By the end of our discussion, she was ready to continue working at Fortador. Empathy goes a long way. It is not just about listening but also understanding and responding with compassion.”

2.   Create Employee Assistance Programs

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are employer-sponsored initiatives designed to provide confidential and professional assistance to employees facing personal or work-related challenges. EAPs offer a range of services aimed at supporting employees’ mental health and well-being, including:

  • Confidential counseling services, where employees can seek professional assistance for personal and work-related issues, including stress, anxiety, depression, relationship problems, substance abuse, etc.
  • Mental health resources to help employees manage stress, cope with challenges, and enhance their emotional well-being.
  • Financial and legal consultation services, so that employees can get guidance on budgeting, debt management, and other financial or legal matters affecting their well-being.
  • Substance abuse programs and resources, including counseling, support groups, and referrals to treatment programs.
  • Training sessions and workshops on various topics related to personal development, stress management, communication skills, and resilience.

3.   Encourage a healthy work-life balance

Employees have a life outside work. To help them strike a balance between their work life and personal life, you should offer flexible work options, such as remote work or flexible scheduling. This allows individuals to accommodate their personal needs, which reduces stress and contributes to their overall well-being.

To further promote work-life balance, set realistic expectations for working hours, discourage excessive overtime, and promote the use of vacation days. Also, implement flexible leave policies that include mental health days, which allow employees to take time off when needed without fear of repercussions. This goes a long way in preventing burnout and supporting employees’ mental well-being.

4.   Implement clear communication channels

Establishing open lines of communication allows employees to feel comfortable expressing their concerns, seeking assistance, and receiving feedback. Encourage regular check-ins between supervisors and team members to create a work environment where mental health concerns can be discussed and addressed proactively and without fear of judgment.

5.   Organize mental health training programs and resources

Providing training programs that raise awareness about mental health issues, reduce stigma, and teach coping strategies ensures that employees and managers are equipped with the knowledge to recognize and address mental health challenges with empathy.

You can also offer your employees mental health benefits, such as coverage for therapy or counseling services, mental health app subscriptions, and easy access to hotlines. You can take things a step further by implementing confidential counseling sessions and wellness programs such as yoga classes, fitness challenges, and mindfulness sessions right in the workplace.

Andrew Cussens of FilmFolk realized that working long hours, handling a heavy workload, and navigating tight deadlines was hurting his employees, so he decided to implement a program of flexible working and provide mental health resources in the workplace. “As a direct result, stress-related complaints are down 30% across the business over the past 12 months. We now also have a series of in-house workshops on stress management and mental resilience, which 85% of staff have attended, as well as a confidential counseling service used by 40%.

We are investing in the mental health of our workforce—not just because the present is tougher on the head, but because of an imperative: if we want our workplace to be sustainable, let alone truly creative, then we need to take care of the minds of those who work on the shop floor.”

What are your legal obligations as an employer for supporting mental health at work?

Supporting your employees’ mental health in the workplace isn’t just a moral thing—it’s also a legal thing. In some cases, encouraging a negative, discriminatory work atmosphere can bring lawsuits to your door. Legal obligations for supporting mental health at work can vary depending on the jurisdiction, but here are some laws to that effect:

1.   Anti-discrimination laws

The laws enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) prohibit employers from discriminating against an applicant or employee based on their race, age (40 or older), religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, disability, or genetic information.

The laws also make it illegal to retaliate against an employee for complaining about discrimination, filing a charge of discrimination, or participating in an employment discrimination investigation/lawsuit.

Other anti-discrimination laws include:

  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA)
  • The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA)
  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
  • Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978

2.   Leave and accommodation policies

Employment laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) require employers to have policies and practices in place for leave and accommodation, including medical and mental-health-related accommodations. Some of the most common reasons a leave may be requested include:

  • To attend medical appointments for chronic illnesses like asthma, diabetes, and bipolar disorder.
  • To get medical treatment, such as physical therapy, chemotherapy, surgery, mental health counseling, and substance abuse treatment.
  • To recover from an illness or surgery, or symptoms associated with chronic illnesses, including a major depressive disorder, intestinal disorder, and epilepsy.

3.   Occupational health and safety laws

Bodies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have set down laws that require employers to provide a safe and healthy work environment for employees. This includes addressing factors that may affect employees’ mental health, such as workplace stressors or hazards.

Nurture employees’ mental health for sustainable business success

Creating a positive workplace that caters to employees’ mental health needs isn’t just a moral or legal imperative—it’s a commitment to the fundamental dignity of every individual within your organization. By recognizing and addressing the various factors that impact mental health, employers can create work environments that promote empathy, resilience, and a sense of belonging.

Establishing open communication, destigmatizing mental health issues, and implementing supportive policies, such as Employee Assistance Programs, contribute to a culture where employees feel valued and supported. If you’re looking to learn more about your legal obligations, as an employer, to your employees, look no further than Employment Law Handbook. This is a great resource for discovering and understanding federal and state employment laws regarding matters like workplace safety, discrimination, mental health, wage payment, unemployment, and more.

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