Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
May 5, 2023

Mental Health in the Workplace: 4 Questions for CEOs and CHROs to Consider

For all the strides that have been made in providing mental health benefits to employees in recent years, the past several years of disruption have shown there is much room for improvement.

According to Mind Share Partners’ 2021 Mental Health at Work Report, 76 percent of U.S. workers reported experiencing at least one symptom of a mental health condition, up 17 percentage points from before the COVID-19 pandemic. More than half (56 percent) reported burnout; 46 percent, depression; 40 percent, anxiety. The mental health epidemic impacted every employee demographic and extended to their families, friends and loved ones.

The anecdotal evidence of the impact piles up daily — the senior leaders requesting leaves of absence due to stress and anxiety, the world-class professional athletes taking hiatuses from the competitive pressure.

And then there are the new employees who are quietly overwhelmed by anxiety and isolation — and begin to look for new professional opportunities as a result. A 2023 survey by SHRM found that one in three U.S. employees say their work has had a negative impact on their mental health over the past six months; 45 percent say that they expect a higher level of mental health support from their employers than they are receiving now.

Amid this environment, we suggest four questions for CEOs, CHROs and other top leaders to ask themselves about how they are addressing mental health in their organizations.

1. How well do you understand the mental health issues going on in your organization?

The headlines only tell the broad story; within each organization are unique examples of the below-the-surface mental issues impacting their people. For example, benefits data may show increased employee spending on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication. There may be more requests for leaves of absence, or a rise in short term-disability costs.

We all know mental health is increasingly having an impact on productivity, employee satisfaction and engagement. But many leaders lack a full picture of their employees’ mental wellness. Until recently, even discussing it has been a tricky and sensitive topic; employee engagement surveys may not ask the right questions about people’s mental wellness.

Today more than ever, mental health must be on the leadership agenda, in order to determine how aware you are of the mental health issues in your organization and what steps can be taken to better understand them.

2. Do we have adequate resources in place to help people?

Nearly 40 percent of companies said they expanded access to mental health services during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a 2021 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. While a positive sign, the increase may have been more related to companies’ unpreparedness for the sharp increase in mental health needs during the pandemic. The Kaiser study also revealed that only 4 percent of companies waived cost-sharing for mental health services, and an even smaller percentage increased access to in-network providers.

An internal culture empathetic to mental health issues must have robust and accessible mental health resources in place for employees. Beyond access to providers, some employers have made investments in recent years in providing employee assistance programs, wellness apps and other tools. These are positive steps.

Once you have the resources in place, making them truly accessible requires ensuring that your employees are aware of what options are available to them, and ensuring that they are safe to use them when needed. Front-line managers play a key role in this. They should know their people well, and should be formally trained on addressing mental wellness, for the benefit of both the individuals and the team around them.

3. What role do you and your leadership team play in your employees’ mental health?

Understanding the issues going on and the resources available are simply the first steps. The bigger leap is holding the mirror up to yourself, to the cultural or leadership behaviors that may unknowingly bring about unintended negative consequences on employees’ mental wellbeing.

Crises like the pandemic can bring out the best and the worst in leadership behaviors, and often produce unintended consequences on employees’ mental well-being. A 2022 survey by Zippia found that 83 percent of U.S. workers suffer from work-related stress; 25 percent say that their job is the number one stressor in their life. Adding to the complexity of the challenge, mental health issues transcend the workplace and extend to the home and beyond.

4. How do we minimize the stigma of mental illness?

As leaders, we all have work to do to minimize the stigmas often attached to mental health issues in the workplace. Increasing the ease with which a person can ask for and receive empathy and support should become standard operating procedure for all leaders.

The COVID-19 pandemic proved that demonstrating care and sensitivity for employees’ health had a direct correlation to their loyalty and engagement, even during difficult times. It is no less true for mental health, an issue that undoubtedly will remain post-pandemic. Recognizing this as a leadership issue to be solved with HR’s help, organizations can create the best-in-class environments needed for both individual and organizational growth.


If you or someone else you know needs additional support for sadness, depression, anxiety or substance abuse issues, please contact one of the crisis centers below:

  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: www.samhsa.gov/find-treatment. The website provides information on a broad range of mental health services, including treatment centers and helplines.
  • Crisis Text Line: text “MHFA” to 741741 for immediate support with a crisis counselor. Visit www.crisistextline.org for more information, including international support.