Organizational Health
(6 Minute Read)

What makes the workplace rough on mental health?

Mental Health Awareness month is coming to a close. Unfortunately for many, May will be the only time that a healthier workplace is at the forefront of discussion. Look around and the impacts of this apathy are apparent.

70% of employees are disengaged with their work [1], stress keeps 1 million workers absent every day [2], and 70% of employees felt concerned about their levels of depression. [2] Many business leaders we have met ask us a similar question—why does it matter? There are quite a few points that could be made here but often we point them to the bottom line, with tools like our calculator for determining the cost of your disengaged employees. However, when they are open to it, we always try to point them back to an answer that stems from empathy— people are your most valuable resource, and building a culture that allows them to thrive and drive organizational change is our passion.

We are dedicated to driving cultures across the country that empower employees and help them thrive with their company. This month’s focus on mental health should just be the beginning of an organization's effort to build a workplace of psychological safety and support for those employees who are vulnerable. Work is actually a vital component of mental health, but the reality of the workplace indicates that there is work to be done to create healthy cultures.

One way we aim to create more healthy workplaces is to understand what factors can negatively impact employees, and create a game plan to address them. Research conducted at Stanford indicated that traditional wellness programs aren’t what moves the needle when it comes to employee health. Instead, the overall work environment was much more effective in driving positive health outcomes. [3]  Here are several factors we have uncovered that can be a detriment to your people, and consequently, the health of your entire organization.

All work no play

In a study of 5000 employees, Norwegian author Morten Hansen found that performance is not correlated with work hours. The greater the number of hours an employee worked, the lower their productivity was per hour they worked.  In fact, extensive shifts at work were more positively tied to adverse health conditions like diabetes, disability, cardiovascular problems and more. It is vital to a healthy work environment to strike a balance between productive hours spent at work and time with family and friends, all without creating unreasonable stigmas around “leaving early. 


The world isn’t fair. But apparently we wish it was. Several vital employee health factors are tied to employees' perceptions of fairness and justice in the workplace. Employee satisfaction, organizational commitment, and turnover are all positively correlated with how fair employees feel the workplace is. Our goal should be to create a level playing field for employees. This includes:

  • Impartiality: don’t show favorites, promote fairly, listen to ideas from all
  • Equity: fair rewards and recognition, equal opportunities to achieve and advance, treatment staying consistent across different roles
  • Justice: there are several categories of justice, but key here is that structures and procedures within the organization give everyone their fair shot

Business leaders will need to take intentional steps to promote fairness and justice at work, and also ensure that it is effectively communicated with employees. After all, it is the perception of justice that matters in this scenario to build employee trust. 

Job Design

Job design, in this case, refers to the amount of control that people have over their work. Employees who are in high pressure roles and have very little control over their work find themselves feeling negative effects more acutely. McKinsey worked with a British epidemiologist Michael Marmot and found that the higher someone's rank within an organization, and the higher their autonomy within their role, the lower their risk of adverse health effects such as stress and cardiovascular disease. [4]

The goal for organizations should be to create additional autonomy, train leaders to avoid micromanagement, and allow employees the fluidity and discretion to choose what, when, and how they complete their goals. This will allow them more room to be creative and thrive. 

Work and Life

When work and life intersect, it often results in challenging and emotional choices. Some must choose between completing that extra hour of a project and attending their child’s soccer game. Other choices, like staying home when our significant other is sick can result in feelings of guilt and fear about letting down their work team, their family or both. 

Stress is a major contributor to mental health issues and these difficult tradeoffs often result in severe stress inducing emotions and situations. We need to recognize that family and personal commitments are an irreplaceable part of employees' lives and that employees with a strong work life balance are empowered to bring their best selves to each project. 

Workplace incivility and negative rumination

Even the kindest people have days that make them a bit snippy. Even those with the toughest skin have days that they are more sensitive than usual. Whether it is due to a bad night's sleep, or a stressful day at work, sometimes we treat people with less respect than they are due. McKinsey describes this workplace phenomenon as workplace incivility—”the accumulation of thoughtless actions that leave employees feeling disrespected”. [5]  From feeling ignored or undermined to feeling belittled by a manager, these behaviors are essentially small violations of mutual respect. 

When looking at the impacts of a workplace on mental health, one determining factor on insomnia and overall mental health was negative rumination—mentally replaying an event and incessantly thinking about it, even after the work day has ended. Toxic work environments drive employees to spend additional energy and stress on the workplace outside of work and have been tied to increased depression, substance use, health issues, lower productivity, increased turnover, and lower commitment to the organization from employees.[6]

We can’t control every action of each employee, but business leaders can drive increased awareness, ensure accountability for actions, protect vulnerable employees, and train their people in both emotional intelligence and resilience. The goal should be to reinforce that a healthy culture is built on trust and respect, and that we are committed to building it on a daily basis. 

Mental Health Awareness month is almost over but this could be the start of organizations journeys to establishing a culture that protects vulnerable employees and sets a tone of respect and transparency. Eliminating risk factors is just the beginning of that journey but we believe that taking that first step is vital. 

If you have any questions about mental health risk factors, building a healthy culture, or any other cultural dimension, we would live to connect. Just head to