A growing number of companies, startups and venerable giants alike, are addressing mental health at work in a big way. Google offers stress management classes. Appster has regular and anonymous venting sessions where employees can let it all hang out. Apps like Joyable claim to aid in self-help. Services like PeopleSpark aim to improve communication between managers and employees. And there are, of course, the standby stress reducing perks: concierge services, gym memberships, free Uber rides, and even complimentary housecleaning.
But few of these perks, services and initiatives address the root causes of stress. While the zeitgeist is narrowly focused on the ways technology complicates our lives — smartphone stress! plugged in stress! information overload! social media alienation! — studies show that lion’s share of our stressors are more traditional than technological. For most of us, the top stressers for Americans are a familiar list: debt, lack of work-life balance and problems at home.
The extent to which employers can and should be involved in mitigating these fundamental stress factors is a topic of serious debate. But mental health, both at work and at home, is a human resources issue. Domestic violence doesn’t stop at the front door and the lingering traumatic effects of tragedies like the Paris attacks are felt everywhere, including the office. It’s the stigma around discussing and disclosing mental health issues, and managers’ fears of stepping afoul that hold employers back from developing substantive mental health strategies or even broaching the topic.
Meanwhile, a competitive, sink-or-swim company culture can leave employees feeling unsafe to even mention being stressed. This Inc. list of things not to say at work advises workers against complaining, or talking about personal problems or being tired. Innumerable other business listicles advise us to make sacrifices, never complain, and pay our dues. That’s all well and good — and sometimes the right advice — but all that silence and dues paying adds up, piling on with setbacks and stresses happening outside of work that we’re not supposed to talk about. Rank and yank layoffs, machismo and competition for promotions further incentivize silence and the acceptance and denial of poor mental health. (They also reduce the effectiveness of teams and incentivize information-hoarding and intra-departmental sabotage, but hey.)
Recognizing the abiding impact of the financial crisis and student loan debt on workers, some companies have begun to offer and expand their loan repayment programs. Only 3% of private sector firms have programs in place to help new employees pay down their debt, but those efforts have a real impact on recipients — and on recruiters looking to source talented candidates. Even top talent can be trapped by fears of debt and risk, and recruiters who can tout their firm’s debt-assistance program will find it much easier to convince those candidates to make a change. Of course, such programs won’t be viable — or necessarily desirable — in all sectors and organizations, but there are other ways to ease workers’ pocket book stress without having a big impact on your bottom line. Retail employees benefit from employee discounts. Starbucks employees can earn a free degree from Arizona State University’s online program — and the company has recently expanded that benefit to the children and spouses of employees who have served in the armed forces. And then there are the usuals: access to company cars for travel, the option to work from home, and bonuses are tried and true ways to reduce economic burdens on employees, and keep them invested and working hard.
But the new Silicon Valley interest in reducing employee stress, though commendable, comes with a danger: over-relying on engineered solutions. We’re making huge strides in computing and artificial intelligence but people are still more complicated — and although social science does try, we can’t exactly be quantified. When I wrote about diversity at Twitter, I said that increasing diversity in tech had to be a holistic strategy, not a series of clever initiatives and improvements to the recruiting process. Improving mental health at work is the same kind of challenge: complicated, loading down with stigma and denial, misunderstood thanks to the confirmation bias we all bring to the table, and most of all, rarely addressed due to fear. The secret to improving mental health at work isn’t an app or a perk or a single, universally applicable strategy. It’s rather, like increasing diversity, a matter of cultural change and openness.
So you sent your team to a mindfulness seminar and host monthly venting sessions. You even have an in-house yoga studio and a lunchroom fridge full of superfoods. Sure, that’s a start. But do your managers model self-care by taking breaks and vacations? Do they draw and maintain barriers between the personal and the professional, by not demanding overnight email responses? Do they encourage collaboration as rule and competition when it’s healthy? Mental health at work should be a priority for all managers and human resources professionals, but it isn’t a quantifiable goal to be reached in Q4; it isn’t a problem to be A/B tested, examined, and neatly solved. What’s most important, initiatives, perks and strategies aside, is working to reduce stigma against mental illness, encouraging collaboration, and allowing occasional vulnerability — essentially, being good to yourself and others.