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Mental Health in the Workplace: A Conversation Bridging Research and Practice


How can we promote mental health in the workplace? 

This is a question that Zhiqing (Albert) Zhou, PhD, and Lawanda Lewis are constantly asking themselves in their work, just from different perspectives. As an associate professor in the Department of Mental Health, Zhou researches how employees’ work-related experiences impact their health, well-being, and safety. As an HR Business Partner who oversees multiple academic departments at the Bloomberg School, Lewis has firsthand experience with assessing the mental health needs of employees and the effectiveness of workplace mental health and wellness programs.

This Mental Health Awareness Month, Zhou and Lewis came together for a wide-ranging conversation about research, practice, program implementation, and what still needs to be learned to help workplaces manage and support the mental health of their employees.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Lawanda Lewis: Post-COVID, we’re seeing different work modalities, from fully remote work to hybrid work to a mix. Hybrid work seems to be the way of the world now. What approaches can organizations take to better promote mental wellness in a hybrid workforce?

Albert Zhou: There is consistent evidence of the benefits of hybrid work, such as more flexibility, more autonomy, reducing commuting time, and better work-life balance. Meanwhile, there are reports of remote or hybrid workers feeling lonely or isolated, dealing with the added stress of shared spaces and family responsibilities, and feeling pressure to always appear available and present. We published a study in 2022 in the International Journal of Human Resource Management that found that workers’ mental health was negatively impacted when they felt too closely monitored by their managers.

One way to deal with this is to make sure managers are trained to prepare, support, and better communicate expectations and guidelines for hybrid and remote workers, while giving workers flexibility and more control over their time. Social and emotional support from coworkers and supervisors is also instrumental to building a healthy work life. People should be able to ask questions, connect with their colleagues, and access resources regardless of when and where they’re working. My collaborators and I are trying to understand how hybrid or remote work can be better managed so that workers can enjoy the benefits and reduce the negative consequences for their mental health.

LL: What has recent research revealed about the mental health benefits of transitioning to a four-day work week with no pay reduction?

AZ: We still need to do more research on the four-day work week, and we don’t yet have consistent solutions, even though this topic has been discussed for over 50 years. But there have been pilots and case studies in several countries that have shown evidence of increased productivity. Workers in these studies reported that they are more satisfied with their work, have better work life balance, and experience less stress and burnout. However, one issue that came up is scheduling problems. For example, I’m working for four days, but my clients are not, so how can we align our work? When we studied weekly work cycles, we found that Monday is already the most stressful day. Since working on Friday is off the table, how do I make sure too much work doesn’t pile up on Monday? 

It’s important to note that these pilot programs were tested with a small number of organizations who voluntarily participated, which means they were already open to the idea of a four-day work week. It's unclear, then, whether their practices can be generalized to other workplaces. The transition to a four-day work week may be easier for office workers, but it would be harder for people in industries where people’s work schedules are less flexible, like blue collar workers or healthcare workers. Again, more research is needed, especially with HR professionals like you, since a lot of these changes will be implemented through HR functions. You are at the front line of making sure that it works as planned, taking feedback, and continuously shaping the practice.

I’m learning a lot about HR practices, and I was wondering if you could give examples of programs you have implemented to promote workplace mental health. 

LL: One of our most important programs is the Johns Hopkins Employee Assistance Program (JHEAP), which provides confidential counseling, resources, and referrals to employees and their families for personal and work-related issues. And we’ve implemented flexible work arrangements. Hybrid or modified hybrid schedules allow employees to meet the needs of their roles and divisions while still managing their personal and work lives. 

We also provide programs that can help employees manage their physical, emotional, social, and financial well-being, like meditation and yoga classes; premium memberships to tools that reduce stress and improve focus, like the Calm app; and the Healthy at Hopkins Wellness Initiative hub for resources and benefits.

Our leadership trainings raise awareness of mental health and unconscious bias and help supervisors recognize and manage employee stress. To reduce the stigma of talking about mental health, we regularly coach managers on how to create open dialogue with their employees about issues like stress and workloads. Through these kinds of initiatives, we want to help managers create a psychologically safe work environment. 

AZ: Offering a variety of programs is great for addressing individuals’ different needs and creating psychologically safe relationships, while also caring about the overall work environment. Of all these different programs, what has worked well? 

LL: Our Employee Assistance Program has evolved over the years. The University has been good at adapting it as work set-ups change and employee needs change, so that flexibility has led to a lot of reinventions over the years. Being flexible with our employees’ work arrangements has also worked really well. Everyone is dealing with day-to-day issues and unpredictable situations, so we want managers to balance knowing what needs to be done with caring for their employees. 

JHU’s supervisor trainings have helped managers lead fairly, create open communication, and provide timely feedback so that employees always know where they stand. We also think it’s important to show employees appreciation and recognition for their hard work.

AZ: Definitely. We’ve seen in research that lack of recognition negatively affects productivity, performance, and mental well-being. It’s always good to see appreciation and recognition coming from the top down. Are there other workplace mental health topics that HR professionals like you are interested in right now?

LL: I'm interested in learning more about efforts to reduce stigma and promote open dialogue, especially when it comes to relationships between supervisors and their subordinates. What should organizations look out for when managing that relationship?

AZ: That's a great question because supervisors play an important role in employee mental health. From the research perspective, we develop specific, reliable, and valid measures to assess supervisor behaviors. The commonly used approach is asking workers to answer questions about the frequency of certain supervisor behaviors, such as rudeness or inattention. Those kinds of behaviors are subtle and sometimes low intensity but can affect people’s well-being if experienced regularly.

It's important to note that sometimes employees’ perceptions might not correspond to the actual behavior of the supervisor. The supervisor might not intentionally be rude, but their behaviors can still be perceived as rudeness or incivility. That's why when we study supervisor behaviors, it's important to calibrate across multiple direct reports of the same supervisor. That's an indication of a pattern of behavior and that action needs to be taken in terms of interventions or training. So, I think it’s important for organizations to continuously gather employees’ perceptions and combine data from multiple sources to get a more accurate reflection of supervisor behaviors. To prevent incivility in the workplace, it's important to build an environment where people are aware of their behavior and are mindful of their impact and talk about mental health.

LL: Reducing mental health stigma is a major theme. We want to raise awareness of resources and make sure that people get the support they need. But when we start talking about illnesses, we start to trickle into the lines of protected health information and figuring out how to handle that information. We have an office that supports employees who need accommodations, but we are still learning. 

AZ: It’s great that HR is thinking about and prioritizing workplace mental health because that’s not the case everywhere. The research on workplace mental health is also still evolving. I’m doing a review piece with a student about disclosure of mental health conditions and how we can foster more open communication so support can be provided. But there’s still a long way to go. As a researcher, I want to keep providing evidence to help teams like yours who are doing actual implementation and supporting employee health and well-being.