Belonging Is a Key Factor in Workplace Mental Health

By: Heather Moyer on June 28th, 2023

Though many may think the events of the past several years in the US and around the world have sparked a mental health epidemic, experts have long been concerned about mental health and the impact of disparity and illness in mental health for decades.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says almost 1 billion people around the world suffer from a mental disorder. It’s challenging to quantify the full impact of this fact on society and communities, but the impact on the workplace has been studied extensively. It’s estimated that US $1 trillion is lost yearly by the global economy in lost productivity resulting from anxiety and depression alone. “In total, poor mental health was estimated to cost the world economy approximately $2.5 trillion per year in poor health and reduced productivity in 2010, a cost projected to rise to $6 trillion by 2030.”

Mental Health at Work

The impact of mental health is seen in rising healthcare expenditures, both directly and indirectly related to those conditions, heightening awareness and attention from employers and benefits organizations. The Employee Benefit Research Institute finds that enrollees with mental health disorders reportedly spend more on overall health care as well.

Of course, people’s personal lives and factors not related to work play a significant role in mental health, but the workplace is and can further contribute to employees’ mental health, as the cause of challenges or even as a source of healing.

In fact, Mind Share Partners’ 2021 Mental Health and Work Report found that “[a]n overwhelming 84% of respondents reported at least one workplace factor that negatively impacted their mental health.” Some key workplace issues contributing to poor mental health are “compensation failing to keep up with inflation, electronic monitoring of employees, certain groups experiencing discrimination and feeling a lack of acceptance, and some employees even experiencing toxic or abusive workplaces.”

The good news is that, overwhelmingly, employers are responding. The American Psychological Association’s 2022 Work and Well-being Survey showed that 71% of respondents believe their employers are more concerned now about employee mental health than in the past. Considering 81% say that how an employer supports mental health is a key consideration when they’re job searching. Clearly , employees’ mental health plays an important role in productivity, retention, recruiting, and of course culture.

The Role of Belonging in Mental Health

To effectively support mental health in their organizations, business leaders need to first understand what mental health is. According to the McKinsey Health Institute, a “modernized understanding of health” includes physical, mental, social, and spiritual health.

“It requires viewing health as an investment, not an expense. […] It requires fully empowering individuals to steward their own health. Every institution, every leader, and every person has an important role to play.”

Belonging (“the feeling of being an accepted member of a group,” as defined by the Office of U.S. Surgeon General) is an elusive but critical factor in both social and spiritual health. It’s so critical, in fact, that what was DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) has evolved to DEIB — Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging.

LifeSpeak looked into that connection between belonging and overall well-being: “[E]mployees who demonstrate low levels of belonging are four times more likely to have faced mental health declines in the past year and 59% more likely to have considered quitting due to mental health concerns.” In their report, Belonging: The Antidote to Quiet Quitting and Better Mental Health, they found that high belonging scores contributed to outcomes like retention, feelings of equitable treatment, and openness to recommending the company as a great place to work.

They also found that employees who perceive their organizations are both prioritizing and making progress in health and well-being are more likely to feel like they belong. Leadership at all levels are contributing to (or damaging) the culture of health and wellbeing at their organizations daily. These leaders are paramount in creating that culture by ensuring their teams are comfortable talking about mental health and giving permission or even encouraging them to take care of their well-being and utilize corporate benefits. That includes prioritizing their own well-being by demonstrating that behavior themselves.

What Employers Can Do

The Office of the U.S. Surgeon General names Connection and Community as one of its key essentials in its Framework for Workplace Mental health & Well-Being, belong and social support are key needs that this essential fills. Creating a culture of inclusion and belonging is one of its three components of Connection and Community.

To do this, it advises encouraging prosocial behavior. “Prosocial behavior promotes positive social relationships through welcoming, helping, and reassuring others.” On the other side of that coin, it says to protect employees against bias, discrimination, and exclusion. “Organizational leaders should cultivate environments and cultures where connection is encouraged, and workers of all backgrounds are included.”

Employee benefits are another key way organizations can ensure its workers feel a sense of belonging at work. But the standard set of benefits are often not enough or the right fit to make a positive impact on belonging and overall employee wellness. Experts recommend organizations look at their specific worker populations to gain a deeper understanding so they can tailor more impactful benefits packages.

The right programs and initiatives are nuanced based on each individual organization, but employees are ready to respond if and when they’re asked. “When asked to select from a list of a dozen possible supports that they would like to see employers offer, flexible work hours was the most commonly chosen support (41% of workers), followed by a workplace culture that respects time off (34%), the ability to work remotely (33%), and a four-day work week (31%).”

By continuously tapping into the workforce for their input and feedback, before and after implementing major changes, companies can make strides in transparency, communication, and belonging all at the same time. “When employees feel heard, they feel appreciated that what they have to say is valued and matters, increasing their sense of belonging and happiness.”

From the bottom line to the talent pipeline, there’s a strong impact of feeling a sense of belonging is vast, in the workplace and out. “The human reliance on others, our attachment to people, is one of the most basic and powerful neurobiological/psychological needs.” As a human need and as the top driver of employee experience linked to engagement and well-being, workplace belonging should be a top organizational priority for the foreseeable future.