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The key to a happy workplace – Mental health insights

Guest Analysts – Deakin University

This research was conducted by senior students from the Deakin University FreelancingHUB as part of the Catalyst social & environmental research program. 

The study investigated the impacts of COVID-19 on mental health in the workplace in the U.S. and surveyed 2,000 U.S. adults in July 2022. 


The COVID-19 pandemic had a notable impact on almost every aspect of the day-to-day lives of many Americans; from not being able to see loved ones, to stressors surrounding not being able to work and put food on the table. The pandemic stopped the world, but the world did not stop; with people needing to continue to work to support themselves while also trying to cope with the fears and changes that came along with it in the last few years.    

It might have been expected that mental health would decline with all the competing demands that came with the pandemic, however our research shows that for many Americans, their mental health stayed about the same, and some people even experienced an increase in their mental wellbeing. 


Key Take Aways


While the initial aim of this survey was to find out how employees’ mental health was affected by employer’s responses to COVID-19, we also found out what people wanted from their workplace more generally. 

  • Pay is Important 

Pay is still a high priority for employees, with many stating pay as a top reason for looking for other employment. With the cost of living increasing, it is important for employers to ensure wages keep up.  

  • Mental health IS health 

Employees would like mental health to be treated the same as physical illnesses, with paid leave and other supports.

  • Financial assistance, flexibility, and support 

Paid sick leave and reimbursements were commonly on the ‘wishlist’ for workplace changes. Employees also valued flexibility of working hours, the ability to work from home, and mental health supports.

Did COVID-19 impact the mental health of Americans?

Surprisingly, nearly half of Americans surveyed stated their mental health stayed the same during the pandemic, whilst 23% indicated they experienced a decline in their mental health. However, an almost equally large proportion of the population (21%) experienced an improvement in their mental health, indicating that perhaps with the right interventions such as the flexibility of working from home, it is possible to avert the negative impacts of COVID-19 and the associated lockdowns.

It was interesting to note that men were more likely to report an improvement in mental health than women. This could perhaps be explained by the fact women were more likely to be employed in the service, education or health industries which were heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. For men, the improvement in mental health could be attributed to more work/life balance, as 50% of respondents reported more flexible working hours, and 43% had the ability to work from home.


Pay is more important than casual Fridays

People who reported a decline in their mental health were twice as likely to indicate dissatisfaction with their pay compared to those with improved mental health. On the flip side, those who experienced an improvement in their mental health were more than twice as likely to be very satisfied with their pay.

Given the current cost of living pressures, and the results shown above, it’s not a huge leap to assume that satisfaction with income reduces some financial stresses and may improve mental health.

Businesses can be so focused on trying to boost morale through casual Fridays and free donuts, that they might be focusing too much on the symptom and not the cause – unsatisfactory pay.


“Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em”

Want your employees to stay? Paying them well and giving them new opportunities may be the answer.

For those who are actively looking for a new job, dissatisfaction with pay and the need for a change are the top two reasons. 

Once again, we can see that a decline in mental health is linked with pay being low, with a massive 50% of this group seeking new employment because their pay is not enough. 

Even for those with stable or improved mental health, low pay is still a driver in looking for a new job, second only to the need for a change. 

To increase your chance of retaining employees, paying them well and keeping them interested with new opportunities appears to be the way to go.


Stable long-term employment makes for better mental health

What are the benefits of retaining your employees?

The survey showed that long-term employment is linked to stable or improved mental health, with those employed for less than 6 months most likely to report a decline in mental health.

3-5 years seemed to be the sweet spot, past this time is perhaps where people indicate they are ready for a change. When your employees reach the 5-year mark it might be time to offer new opportunities to keep them interested.

Happy employees are less likely to leave, likely saving employers time and money on recruitment and training, as well as boosting overall productivity.


Start the conversation on mental health in the workplace

Being able to talk about mental health at work can go a long way towards improving the mental health of your employees. 

The results showed that when people feel comfortable to talk to others in the workplace about mental health, no matter their role, their mental health had either stayed the same or improved. 

More importantly, it should not be assumed that people are doing well when they say nothing at all. Those with declined mental health were the least likely to feel comfortable talking to management, human resources, or co-workers about their mental health issues.  This could be due to fear of stigma or judgement if mental health struggles are revealed, so making it clear that mental health is supported in the workplace and starting the conversation is important. However, it’s just as important to be equipped and prepared if the answer to “are you ok?” is “no” – don’t make it an empty question. Employers need to have services in place for those that need it.


What do employees want?

When employees were asked what it is they really wanted from their employers, pay, flexibility and support were the front runners.

Continuing to highlight the importance of pay, paid sick leave/pandemic leave and reimbursement for work from home costs were top of the list of wants for those who reported a decline in mental health. For this group, mental health supports came in a close third, highlighting the need for employers to rethink their current support in this area.

Paid pandemic/sick leave was also top of the list for those with unchanged mental health. Followed by flexibility of working hours and the ability to work from home.

In fact, the only group that didn’t have paid pandemic and sick leave as their first priority, were those with improved mental health, who prioritised flexibility of working hours. 


In their own words

At the end of the survey, respondents were given the chance to let us know in their own words anything they wanted employers to know. The word cloud below shows the most common phrases.

The main trends for these answers revolved around treating mental health issues like any other physical illnesses, particularly by providing paid mental health leave. 

The need for a good work/life balance was also often flagged, with a desire for reasonable workloads, flexibility, and increased pay rates. 

Finally, comments reminded employers that employees are people, and they just want to be treated with care, compassion, and open communication.


What’s Next: changes that need to be made in this new COVID-19 world?

The data collected is clear, if you want your employees to be happy and productive in the workplace, paying them accordingly is key. Allowing for flexibility and treating mental health as the real and serious issue it is, including providing support for it, will also go a long way in ensuring employee retention.

Keep an open and ongoing conversation about mental health in the workplace so employees feel comfortable talking about it. Emphasise the message that it is ‘OK not to be OK’, and back this up through your actions. This will help employees feel comfortable asking for help, but also make sure real and effective supports are in place when they do ask.

Avoid surface level communications and really show employees you care by following through and making the changes needed to creative a positive working environment. Don’t wait around for Mental Illness Awareness Week to demonstrate your support for your employees’ mental health.

For further details, you can read the full report here.

About Catalyst

Catalyst is an open-source research program investigating consumer concerns about social and environmental issues. The program is building a body of knowledge to fuel conversation, action and behavior change by supporting businesses with insights that fuel their own programs of action. 

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Our Partners

Glow is a proud partner and research technology provider to the Catalyst program. Special thanks to Cint for providing the sample on which the research is based and to our other partner brands including:

Catalyst partners April 2022