Mental health – what do employees expect?

This is not a niche trend or a fading fashion - employees want to work for companies where their mental health is important, and this sets a new role for leaders
Health, Psychology

The definition of professional success is changing

Not so long ago, professional success meant a good salary and a high position. This resulted in social status and the corresponding lifestyle. Yes, achieving such success often required a sacrifice in the form of long working hours and constant stress, but since that was the price, it was accepted to have to be paid. Such thinking is a thing of the past. Today, money and prestige are still important components of success, but there are other elements that play an increasingly important role alongside them:

  • physical and mental health

A professional career is not meant to ruin us, make us addicted and lead us to the offices of doctors and therapists. We do not want to grit our teeth, recover after hours, long for Fridays, be happy that we have made it to the next vacation, and – finally – retirement. We live and work longer, so we care about maintaining balance and good shape for years.

  • pleasure, growth, satisfaction

We do not want to “do what they tell you to, as long as they pay” or be part of organisations known to breach workers’ rights or poison the planet. We want to enjoy our work, and to deliver it in a favourable atmosphere. We want to feel that our work makes sense and serves others, and learn to perform it better. Increasingly, we pay attention to whether the company’s values are in line with our personal values.

  • time for loved ones and for pursuing our own interests

We refuse to make “either career or family” choices and are against thinking that a committed employee must be chained to the company 24 hours a day. We want a full life, allowing for quality time for loved ones and space to relax, we expect to be able to read or ride a bike without being disturbed, to depart on trips to areas without phone range. We define ourselves not only by our professional function but also by other roles we fulfil in our lives and the passions we pursue.

Non-wage elements are more and more important

Some bosses still find it hard to believe: what is the fuss about – since the company pays, it has the right to demand, right? And let the employees take care of other matters themselves. Studies show how far our approach has shifted from such a view:

Today, success is understood much more broadly than it used to be and, consequently, the expectations towards employers who are to enable this success are also changing.

What influences the current attitudes?

Behind such a significant change in expectations are the phenomena observed in the modern world, the most important of which seem to be:

  • prevalence of mental life problems

     Already before the pandemic, 27% of adults in Poland declared that they have experienced mental health problems. Covid, the war in Ukraine and economic unrest have drastically worsened these statistics because, to different degrees and in different ways, they have affected us all. Mental health challenges are therefore pervasive and people are increasingly realising that they cannot be ignored. The more so as in the changing and uncertain reality we do not know what else will stand in our way.

  • barriers to self-care

Though the number of mental health problems is growing, less than every fifth person requiring help reaches out for it. Access to public services is dramatically limited, and the use of private services is associated with costs and requires good orientation in choosing a specialist. Societal taboos regarding mental health also do not help. Only 31% of Poles declare that they once met a mentally ill person, which is statistically impossible, and therefore means that we either do not disclose problems or we do not want to see them (most likely, both).

  • integration of professional and private life

When work was inextricably linked with where and when it was performed, perhaps dividing life into separate areas made sense. At present, however, different spheres are more and more intertwined, and we look at life more and more holistically. So we realise that work affects health and health affects work, we bring professional problems home and take domestic ones to work, frustration in one area casts a shadow on all others, just like success permeates all levels of life.

  • generational and cultural changes

The labour market is currently made up of four generations – while in the opinion of the eldest, baby boomers, the road to success led through hard work, and for Xs career was often more important than private life, for Ys it is very important what they can do in their free time, and Zs are looking for jobs that are in line with their interests. At the same time, the market is shaped by the changing position of women, greater openness to diversity, respect for individual freedom, as well as increasing social and environmental responsibility.

What employees expect from employers

Employed persons clearly recognize the relationship between health conditions and professional duties. 60% of Polish employees declare that they experience a mental crisis during the year, and 37% associate it with work. Simultaneously, 53% of respondents from different countries believe that their poor mental state affects work in a negative manner. Since both work has an impact on mental health, and mental health affects work, it is not surprising that 77% of respondents do not agree with the statement that mental health is their private issue.

Employees’ expectations are clear and exceptionally consistent:

  • for 86% of the pool researched in the United States, it is important that the corporate culture is geared towards promoting mental health;
  • in Poland 90% see the need to introduce mental health programs in their companies;
  • 67% also think it is a good idea for the company to offer counselling sessions with a psychologist or therapist.

Are employers up to the task

Many employers understand the importance of mental health and take steps to support it. In the world, only 13% of employees say their employer is doing nothing to promote mental health at work. However, in Europe it is 29%. In Poland, only 20% of respondents confirm that the employer provides psychological support to employees, and 25% cannot say whether such assistance is available (it is worth adding that the availability of support programs is more noticed by office workers). Only 19% of people declare that the organisation in which they work is open to reporting mental problems to the employer. It seems that although the expectations of employees both in the world and in Poland are similar, Polish employers still have a homework to do in terms of satisfying them.

What can we do with the existing gap?

Awareness is the key factor here. Understanding that caring for mental health is not a niche trend or a temporary fashion that will fade like ‘fruit Wednesdays’. People want to work in organisations where their mental health is regarded as important. Caring for the health of employees also makes sense from the point of view of companies – both on human and purely economic level. The employer does incur expenses related to the implementation and operation of support programs, but due to high labour costs, and thus losses related to absenteeism, reduced productivity and excessive rotation, the rate of return on such investment is usually high. The presence of a mental health program is a win-win solution that benefits both parties.

What role do leaders play

Probably in many cases the inactivity of companies in the field of mental health care reflects the beliefs of leaders that this is not what they are qualified to do, and that dealing with it goes far beyond the roles they have assumed. Therefore, it is worth explaining what is and what is not the role of a manager in the face of new expectations. Yes, if you are a leader, the mental health of employees is your concern. This means that it is worth having or developing competences in this area. However, all this is not about you becoming a company psychologist. You do not have to know all the problems, diagnose or advise. Your tasks are:

What it means in practice

The implementation of those tasks is a long-term process that begins at the level of the company’s values and then affects its day-to-day operations:

  • setting values

Caring for the mental balance of employees can be a company’s value, just like operational excellence or technological innovation are – it is a strategic decision that defines the culture of the organisation.

  • supporting solutions

Values should be communicated, which in itself can shape attitudes to some extent. However, it is important that they are also reflected in planned projects and the resources allocated to them, in organisational and technological solutions or incentive systems. Thus, for example, the company may provide employees with tips on coping with stress and teach them to communicate assertively, but should not set unrealistic goals or reward employees in a way that encourages aggressive competition.

  • recognizing problems

It helps when managers have a general knowledge of the warning signals related to mental health, the relationship between stress and efficiency or the origins of occupational burnout, because it allows them to quickly pay attention when things start to go wrong. Noticing the problem is not meant to be an announced diagnosis: “you have a problem with alcohol” or “it is depression, in my opinion.” Rather, it is about communicating facts and observations about the consequences for work: “you missed the deadline for the third time”, “you seem distracted at meetings”, “I have the impression that our project is stuck”, and openness to talking about them.

  • talking about problems

In an organisation focused on balance, the boss should rather not cultivate the “I want to hear about your successes” approach, instead, it will be useful to ask regularly what is the greatest difficulty for a given person or team right now, or to implement the practice of discussing lessons learned after overcoming the obstacles. The role of leaders is to create a narrative around common challenges.

  • showing possibilities

It is not about making ready-made proposals, but about showing the way. Sometimes it means asking questions that will direct the thinking of a person or team – even as simple as “what do you need from me?” or “where could we start?” Sometimes it will be a reminder about the availability of a psychologist or coach, or sharing an example.

  • setting a personal example

Without it, even the best-designed corporate programs will always seem fitting to some degree like a square peg to a round hole. If you are a leader in a company for which balance is the value, think about what balance means for you and how it is reflected in your life.

Work is still a transaction

I truly believe in leading with empathy, which often also inspires personal growth. Nevertheless, I want to make an important note. Work has always been a transaction, and although the terms of this transaction change, its essence remains the same. So there must be a fair trade grounds. Employers, in fulfilling their obligations, have the full right to expect the employees to fulfil theirs. Therefore, caring for the mental health of employees does not mean that there is no feedback in the company about unfinished tasks or no layoffs, that there is consent to errors and omissions because the leader will always be gentle and kind. Wellbeing at the expense of the organisation would be turning things upside down. Companies can and should create favourable conditions for employees but they do not take responsibility for how they themselves will want to function in these conditions, and the role of leaders is also to set limits when the transaction conditions are not met.

If your company does not yet have an employee mental health support program, contact us.


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