Punching out: The dire state of worker mental health

From February 2020 to February 2022, Google searches for same-day mental health services and centers for workplace mental health each grew by 1,300% and searches for “how to ask for a mental health day” grew by 1,000%, according to marketing platform Semrush. Searches for mental health strategy increased by 133%, mental wellness by 52% and emotional well-being, 23% during this same pandemic period. 

These numbers show “the after-effect of people working extremely hard over the last couple of years, dealing with huge amounts of change,” said Nick Taylor, clinical psychologist, CEO and co-founder of Unmind, a London-based workplace mental health platform. “As they serve others, a lot of people relegate self-care. This is often fine episodically, but prolonged periods of neglecting self-care can turn small issues into more serious problems, which require serious help.” 

For HR professionals and business leaders, this means understanding the added dimensions of mental health unique to the workplace, including among working parents of young children. 

Understand unsustainable situations

Mae Singerman was director of operations for an organization that worked to expand the social safety net for long-term care. She ran almost every meeting she attended, supervised staff and consultants, tracked and managed a $6 million budget, rolled out new policies and helped to facilitate organizational changes. 

“I also had started to work late at night, was eating at 10 p.m. I was worried and anxious about work all the time, even outside of work hours. I stopped moving,” she explained in an email to HR Dive. Contemplating her future back then, Singerman said, “the last thing I would want to do every day would be to work this job. I just knew I was done.”

Singerman, who lives with her husband and “the chaos of a 4- and 6-year-old” in a small New York apartment, is caregiver both in and out of the home — coordinating care for her mother in Florida and traveling to be with her for a few days each month. Though she had considered leaving her executive role for some time, ultimately it was a series of family and health-related events that prompted the decision. After her own appendectomy and a false alarm about cancer — a scare heightened by the fact her father died of cancer when she was 11 — Singerman said, “I just realized, I wanted a change and to live differently. I don’t want to grow or train right now. I just want to be.”

Since fall last year, Singerman has served as administrative project manager at Showing Up for Racial Justice, a national organization that encourages White people to fight for racial and economic justice. “I’m basically a glorified administrative assistant,” she said, and overqualified for the job. 

“I’m still the kind of person who is looking for validation through work,” she said, but “I cannot imagine going back to a job with high stress levels anytime soon,” not even for the positional power she had before. “I’m really happy with the change. I was able to add a lot more structure back into my life. … I now work out in the morning. My overall health and mental well-being is better.” 

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Mother of two, Rachel Skybetter, works in ed tech communications. She said there’s a disconnect in the workplace between business leaders and employees. “My daughter just turned 4 and my son just turned 8 months,” she said. “When they are both home, it’s a tornado, and my attention is split in 100 different ways. …The deadlines aren’t changing, and the meetings aren’t moving.”

Skybetter’s experience echoes findings of The 2022 State of the Workplace report from workforce analytics platform ActivTrak, which showed collaboration tools interrupt employees an average 70 times per day, accounting for 21% of distractions. It’s “work about work the incoming notifications generated by email, meetings and productivity tools and responses to those things that can bring a sense of running in place, especially for workers already in a cycle of catch-up, feeling a sense of underperformance and overwhelm. 

Essentially overnight, lines blurred between our work and home lives, leading to longer hours and difficulties with establishing boundaries, said Megan Smith, vice president and head of HR, North America, at SAP. “Our kitchens became our offices, family rooms turned into day cares,” Smith said, “and this shift, in some cases, was permanent. It’s impossible to completely compartmentalize stress” — especially when there’s just no time to “punch out.” 

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