Posted: 16 May 2023 5 min. read

Mental Health Awareness Month

What to do when connected workers feel lonely, disconnected

By Jay Bhatt, D.O., executive director of the Deloitte Health Equity Institute and the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, and Jennifer Fisher, chief well-being officer, Deloitte Services, LP

Mental health has long been a challenge in the United States. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated it by increasing social isolation, creating economic uncertainty, making it difficult to get care or delaying care, and adding anxiety about getting sick. In addition, the technology that was used to help keep employees connected, productive, and safe during the height of the pandemic might have made some employees feel less connected, more isolated, and lonelier.

Loneliness can pose both a physical and a mental health risk. It is tied to a higher probability of cardiovascular disease, dementia, anxiety, stroke, depression, and premature death, according to a report released early this month by the U.S. Surgeon General.1 The health effect of being socially disconnected can be as damaging to the body as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to the report.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month.2 But mental health is an issue that requires ongoing discussion, particularly in this post-pandemic era. Each year, 1 in 5 adults experiences mental illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.3

Employers should consider human sustainability

Organizations have the potential to foster human sustainability, which we define as the long-term, collective well-being of individuals, organizations, climate, and society. Some companies that shifted to remote work three years ago may now be weighing the advantages of remote work against the benefits of being in the office with co-workers. Several recent reports have focused on the mental health benefits of combining remote work with being in the office.4

Last fall, Deloitte conducted a marketplace survey of 1,274 US workers across a wide range of industries, regions, education, income levels, and demographics (see The workforce well-being imperative.)  We wanted to learn what some employers were doing to try to improve the well-being of their employees and whether those efforts were having an impact.

Based on our findings, three factors appeared to often have an outsized impact on the mental health and well-being of employees—Leadership behaviors at all levels (from a direct supervisor to the C-suite); how the jobs are designed; and how work is conducted across organizational levels. We refer to these factors as the work determinants of well-being. Organizations should strive to create environments that sustainably support humans. But where should they start?

  • Look beyond employee wellness programs: Some large employers have invested millions of dollars into programs designed to improve workforce well-being. However, those investments might not be generating the most positive outcomes. Nearly 70% of workers we surveyed said they did not use the full value of the well-being resources their organizations offered. Respondents said that accessing the programs was either too time-consuming, confusing, or cumbersome. Employers should evaluate their wellness programs through surveys and interviews with employees. Organizations can also measure other factors such as the amount of overtime people put in each week. They might also analyze or monitor the volume of email and texts sent during weekends and evenings to better understand workload.
  • Consider a hybrid working model: Employees might not be able to produce their best work if they do not feel connected to work or engaged with their colleagues. Some employees have returned to the office full-time, others may be going back in two or three days a week, and some might continue to work remotely 100% of the time. Different working models may work well for some employees and not as well for others. People who have face-to-face interactions often feel a sense of connection, belonging, and friendship, which can affect physical and mental health. A growing number of employers seem to be requiring a full or a partial return to the office, following a shift to remote work during the pandemic, with the intent to foster communication, collaboration, and team building. Some employers have adopted hybrid models where workers are remote two or three days a week and in-person the other days. The return to in-person work should be intentional and focus on the benefits of face-to-face interaction.
  • Foster supportive and inclusive relationships that strengthen connections: Supportive and inclusive relationships at work are associated with employee job satisfaction, creativity, competence, and better job performance, according to the surgeon general’s report. Moreover, regular communication among co-workers of all levels can help prevent chronic work stress and burnout, according to the report.
  • Focus on leadership: Anyone who has responsibility for others can be a steward of well-being. A majority of our survey respondents said that micro- or undermanagement, limited recognition, and a lack of empathy and psychological safety are the most detrimental leadership behaviors to their well-being. While allowing employees the option to work remotely might help attract and retain talent, it could create new demands for managers and leaders. This can include the need for greater empathy, more intentional communication, and relationship cultivation. There are myriad factors that could indicate mental health issues among workers. Attrition rates, for example, could shed light on the quality of workers’ relationships with their supervisors; an analysis of insurance claims might help employers understand whether workers are seeking more or less medical attention over time. 

Mental health inequities appear to be widespread

It is not surprising that decades of systemic health inequities have led to significantly worse mental health outcomes “for racial and ethnic minoritized, marginalized, and under resourced populations,” according to a report from the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine.5 Moreover, nearly 6 million Americans are not accounted for in national reporting estimates regarding mental health care, according to the report.

The Deloitte Health Equity Institute (DHEI) is involved in several collaborations that have prioritized mental health inequities among systematically disadvantaged populations. Focusing on interventions can help address mental health and/or the upstream drivers of mental health disparities for various populations. Here are a few of our collaborations:

  • Unidos US: This organization helps to connect Latinx youth and families to health education with intentional focus on behavioral health education.6
  • New Profit: The philanthropy organization was created by and for social entrepreneurs. Last spring, DHEI began collaborating with New Profit to support nonprofit organizations that are working to remove health inequities, including mental health. We are building on the success of our initial health equity cohort and supporting a new cohort of 16 social entrepreneurs focused on driving innovation and addressing inequities in the mental and behavioral health space (MBH). The cohort will focus on care across the life stages with particular attention on life stages where MBH is vulnerable (i.e., transitions) and have specific focus on youth and engagement with K-12 schools. 7
  • Morehouse School of Medicine: The DHEI is building on our initial collaboration with Morehouse around maternal health (see Can culturally humble care help correct historic wrongs?). We are now working to help embed mental and behavioral health as components of that care and training for the Community-Based Perinatal Patient Navigation Program.

Humans are social and part of our wiring requires interpersonal connections. Challenges to human sustainability may continue to persist, but organizations can help address the root causes of poor workplace well-being. Employers may have an opportunity to address the changing dynamics of work and move toward a model that could help support human sustainability. And if they do, they may be able to increase productivity and innovation, accelerate growth, recruit and retain workers, strengthen brand value, and have a positive impact on society at large.

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This publication contains general information only and Deloitte is not, by means of this publication, rendering accounting, business, financial, investment, legal, tax, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such professional advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified professional advisor.

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1 Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation, Office of the U.S. Surgeon General, May 1, 2023

2 Mental Health Awareness Month, National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2023

3 About Mental Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, April 25, 2023

4 A potential downside to remote work? Higher rates of depression, Society for Human Resource Management, March 10, 2023 

5 The devastating cost of mental health inequities, press release, Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine, September 7, 2022

6 UnidosUS - Latino civil rights and advocacy

7 Introducing New Profit’s first health equity cohort, press release, New Profit, March 18, 2022

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