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Employee Well-being at 12-Year Low: Mental Health Emerges as Top Concern

Americans’ post-pandemic optimism has been abruptly cut short by a combination of rising costs, the global impact of the Ukraine conflict, and increased gun violence. This confluence of factors has fueled fears of a recession and dampened consumer spending.

A Guardian report reveals a 7% increase in the price of goods since last year, making essential purchases like food, gas, and school lunches a heavier financial burden on Americans. 

Additionally, employee well-being has plummeted to its lowest level in 12 years, highlighting the negative impact of the post-pandemic environment on mental and emotional well-being.

“Financial pressure doesn’t exist in a silo and isn’t something that individuals forget about at the end of the workday. When Americans are up at night worrying about finances, it is easy to see how these concerns directly contribute to declining mental and physical wellness,” said Andrew McMahon, CEO and President of Guardian. 

Why Stress Levels Are Soaring in America

Americans face many stressors, leading to a significant decline in overall well-being. Here are some key factors contributing to this rise in stress:

  • Paycheck to paycheck: 40% of Americans struggle to afford basic necessities, leaving them vulnerable to financial shocks.

  • Financial insecurity: Only 30% feel confident managing their finances, and less than half trust their health insurance.

  • Generational divide: Younger generations are particularly burdened, with only 23% of Gen Z reporting good financial health compared to 36% of Baby Boomers.

  • Return to office worries: The return to work adds commuting costs, childcare burdens, and loss of pandemic-era flexibility, further increasing anxiety.

  • Caregivers hit hard: Caregivers faced double the job losses and reduced hours as non-caregivers in the past year, exacerbating their financial strain.

  • Mental health crisis: 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness, and only 19% of Gen Z report good emotional health.

This widespread financial stress is impacting wallets and taking a toll on physical and mental well-being. The report highlights a vicious cycle where economic anxieties lead to poor health, which in turn increases costs and can even lead to premature death.

Poor Health Habits Take Toll on Americans, Fueling Mental Health Concerns

Americans’ physical health has significantly declined since the COVID-19 pandemic, impacting both their physical and mental well-being.

Gym closures, increased alcohol consumption, and a reliance on takeout and delivery meals are cited as key contributors to this decline. This deterioration in physical health is further compounded by its close relationship with mental well-being.

The study found a striking correlation: 50% of workers reporting poor emotional health also assessed their physical health as low, compared to only 5% of those with high emotional health. This highlights the interconnectedness of physical and mental well-being.

Furthermore, the study sheds light on the alarming connection between oral health and mental health. Nearly 29% of workers rated their oral health poorly, with significant consequences for their mental well-being. 

Of those, 45% say they do not smile often, 41% have a lack of confidence, 38% have low self-esteem, and 21% experience depression. This not only impacts mental health and overall quality of life but could also impact work performance and careers, as 12% of workers also say they avoid speaking up in meetings because they’re self-conscious.

Employers Not Doing Enough to Address Declining Well-Being of Workers

It is clear that employers are not adequately addressing their employees’ declining well-being, particularly in mental and physical health.

Employees Craving Mental Health Support:

  • 50% of employees say access to behavioral or mental health services for themselves and their families would be highly valuable.

  • Only 39% report that their organization offers adequate mental health support.

  • This lack of support is especially concerning considering the projected decline in Americans’ mental health: 6 in 10 college students have a mental health diagnosis, suggesting future generations will need even greater support.

  • Lost productivity due to mental health issues costs employers approximately $48 billion annually, highlighting the economic need for employers to prioritize mental well-being.

Employers Acknowledge the Importance of Mental Health:

  • Despite the lack of support, 57% of employers say addressing their workers’ mental health is extremely or critically important.

  • This acknowledgment stems from the increasing number of employee absences due to mental health issues, with mental health-related disability claims rising by more than 40% in the past five years.

Physical Wellness Programs Underutilized:

  • While 48% of employers claim to offer physical wellness programs, such as health risk evaluations and stress management, less than half offer any.

  • Even among employers offering these programs, communication about them is lacking.

  • Only 30% of employees with physical wellness benefits utilize them.

  • This underutilization suggests employers must do more to promote these programs and encourage participation.

Shifting Costs Burden Employees:

  • While employers offer more benefits than ever, they increasingly pass on the costs to employees.

  • This shift financially strains workers, resulting in a decline in life and STD insurance ownership rates.

  • Less than half (45%) of workers believe their employer offers affordable benefits, down from 60% in 2016.

Employers Can Help Reverse Declining Well-Being of Workers

Proactive employers can implement various strategies to reverse this trend and cultivate a healthier, happier workforce.

Work-Life Balance: A Key Ingredient

One crucial focus for employers is improving work-life balance. Studies reveal a strong correlation between flexible work schedules and improved mental health. Nearly half of employees with high emotional well-being enjoy flexible work arrangements, compared to only 36% of those with fair or poor emotional health. 

This suggests that flexible work options, such as selecting start times or working remotely, can significantly contribute to employee well-being. Notably, almost half of all employees surveyed desired flexible work arrangements.

Clear Communication: Unveiling Hidden Benefits

Many employees are unaware of the full range of benefits offered by their employers, leading to underutilization of valuable resources. To address this, employers should actively communicate benefits to employees through various channels like emails, newsletters, intranet, and social media platforms. 

Clearly explaining available benefits, including mental health resources, physical wellness programs, and financial assistance options, can encourage greater participation and improve employee well-being.

Supporting Mental Health: A Shared Responsibility

Mental health is a cornerstone of overall well-being, and employers must support their employees in this crucial area. Openly discussing mental health in the workplace can help reduce stigma and encourage individuals to seek help. 

Additionally, offering mental health coverage in health insurance plans and providing access to confidential counseling services through an Employee Assistance Program can provide critical support to employees facing mental health challenges.

Physical Wellness: A Holistic Approach

Employers can prioritize physical well-being by offering comprehensive wellness programs. These programs should address health risk assessments, nutrition planning, stress management, and fitness options. 

Promoting healthy habits through campaigns, incentives, and healthy food choices encourages employee participation. Creating a supportive environment with ergonomic workstations and stress-reducing activities further boosts physical well-being.

Addressing Affordability Concerns: A Shared Burden

Employers can tackle affordability concerns by negotiating lower mental and physical health coverage costs with insurance providers. Offering flexible benefits lets employees customize plans based on their needs and budgets. 

Moreover, financial wellness programs with educational resources, counseling, and debt management tools help employees manage finances, reducing stress and improving overall well-being.

By implementing these strategies, employers can create a work environment that prioritizes the well-being of their employees. This will lead to a happier and healthier workforce, increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, and improved retention rates. It’s a win-win situation for both employees and employers.