Many years ago, I had a terrible work experience I will never forget.
I was halfway through my doctoral program, working on my dissertation, trying to pay the bills, living in a dingy apartment, and working 32 hours a week.
It was a challenging season of life.
I had been employed at a local psychiatric hospital for a couple years, working overnight shifts, often dealing with violent and combative patients, and distressed family members.
After I completed my Master’s degree—I discovered that all the other Master’s level employees were being paid at a higher rate for the same job, so I decided to ask for a small raise. Despite several conversations with my employer, they declined to offer me any more pay for my degree (they implied I was too young)—so I began looking for other employment.
I was hired right away by a nurse manager colleague who recently left because she was promoted at another local hospital.
My parents encouraged me never to burn a bridge with any employer so I wrote a formal letter of resignation—genuinely thanking my boss for the time I had worked there, and gave a generous 30 days’ notice.
Less than an hour later, the CEO came into my office and told me to clean out my desk and leave immediately, making it look as if I had been fired—without any time to say goodbye to my coworkers, or properly close out the cases with patients and families I had been working with so closely.
I still remember carrying a cardboard box with all my office materials to my trunk, and then sat sobbing in my car.
I was humiliated and devastated.
Choking back the tears, I called my new boss from the parking lot to tell her what had happened.
“Parker, you are an amazing employee and don’t let anyone tell you different. I am thrilled to have you so I am going to double your pay and you can start tomorrow. They’ve been doing this to people for years and they don’t treat people well. That is why I left.”
It was the biggest pay raise I had ever received.
Needless to say, I was unflinchingly loyal to my new boss for the next three years until I moved out of the area when I completed school. Any task that needed to be done, any shift that needed to be covered—I was fiercely committed.
What a difference a leader can make
If you are a manager now, you might be underestimating the enormous impact you can have on your team’s mental health, so I wanted to share the following research with you.
A 2023 study by the Workforce Institute at UKG surveyed 3,400 employees in 10 countries.
- 69% of employees said that their manager had a greater influence on their mental health than therapists or doctors, and an equivalent influence to their spouses or romantic partners.
- 60% of employees in the survey said their job was the most significant factor in their mental health.
- More than 80% of respondents said they would rather have good mental health than a high-paying job.
- Two-thirds of employees said they would take a pay cut for a job that better supported their mental wellness.
- 71% said that work stress negatively impacted their home life.
- 40% of executive level leaders said they would likely quit their job within the year due to work stress.
- More than one-third of employees will never say anything about their mental health to their boss.
The research is clear. Leaders can have a huge impact on employee mental health and wellness and this responsibility needs to be taken seriously.
What can you do now?
It is people that power the organization so the astute leader must pay attention to employee mental health, because it will affect productivity, engagement, and the ultimate outcomes of the workplace.
“It’s old-school to separate personal and professional life,” said Linda Dahlstrom, a manager from a Fortune 500 company.
Managers should pay attention to some of the signs employees show when their mental health may be deteriorating such as mistakes in work, missing deadlines, increased absences, or people acting out of character.
Ask people to turn their cameras on so that you can see them. Sometimes people’s mental health will affect their physical appearance, and you should be attuned to these subtle changes.
Managers can check in briefly but frequently and should be focused on creating an environment of trust with employees.
They should not pry into an employee’s personal life or try to be a therapist, but rather be proactive about asking how people are doing and whether there is anything work-related that can be done to alleviate stress coming from the job.
At my workplace for example, I’m proud to say that we have extensive resources such as ample leave time, good health insurance, employee assistance, reasonable accommodations, catastrophic leave donations, FMLA, and other programs that can bolster employee mental health.
The UKG study pointed out that today’s employees are clearly looking for a caring environment from their employers.
The astute leader should also be familiar with the life happiness U-curve research shows that life satisfaction often dips to the lowest levels at about age 40—when the demands of family, finances, and career tend to be most challenging for people.
Offering flexible working conditions can increase employee satisfaction a lot during this season of life.
A decade ago, when I was a new manager—and before I had children or aging parents—I am ashamed to say I was not nearly as understanding of employees in this phase of life.
And if you lead employees that care for patients in a clinical setting, remember this—your team cannot provide the best mental health care for your patient population if their own mental health is suffering due to working conditions that you could improve!
The topic of improving employee wellness is obviously too large for any one article to cover, but I wanted to share this study in an effort to remind leaders that their impact on employee mental health is simply huge.
I hope you go forward with a renewed inspiration and challenge to look for more ways to positively impact employee wellness and mental health.
Have a great weekend!
*If you have enjoyed Parker’s blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast that Parker co-hosts. We interview successful leaders and discuss research-based principles that help people win in the workplace without compromising the things that matter most—relationships, a life of purpose, and health.
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