What is the absolute best way to reduce non-productive stress at work and promote sustainable mental wellness? This question was at the heart of our most recent MBM forum, where we met with both organizational leaders and wellness professionals.  When I asked these leaders how they knew when their employees and clients were struggling with mental wellness, they reported hearing complaints of feelings of overwhelm, that there just wasn’t enough time, and even blaming others for their problems.  

We know now that stress is contagious, over time eroding the very foundation of an even well-performing team or organization.  While we know that uncontrolled stress and mental wellness issues are expensive, costing companies upwards of $190 billion each year, CEOs and employees are not in agreement with how well companies are doing in addressing mental wellness at work.  One finding from a 2010 Forbes study reports that while 96% of CEOs believe that they are doing enough to address mental wellness issues at work, only 69% of their employees feel the same.  The same study indicates that 80% of CEOs believe that poor mental health negatively impacts worker productivity.  Personally, I’m curious as to what the other 20% of CEOs are thinking?!?!  That the world is flat?  The gravity is fake news?

In any event, those leaders who pay attention to what their employees are saying and how they are feeling now that our global mental wellness is at the brink of, if not already, in crisis.  The reality is that not every organization has the same will or capacity to comprehensively address employee mental wellness, and that is ok.  It’s far more important to ask what we can do to promote employee mental wellness, than what we can’t.  Good, better, and best options are critical in meeting organizations where they are in supporting their employees. 



While organizations carry a large degree of responsibility for causing employee burnout, in our experience the most effective place to begin with mental wellness programs is empowering the employees themselves.  When a house is on fire the focus isn’t immediately on determining the cause, it needs to be on getting the fire under control, and right now employees are on fire.  A good approach to addressing employee mental wellness includes three basic components:


  • A Perceived Stress Assessment: Begin by quickly assessing the level of perceived stress that people are experiencing, and the Perceived Stress Scale is an efficient tool in doing so.
  • Stress Education: Basic stress education regarding the physiologic, emotional, and psychological signs and impacts of stress is critical in helping employees understand that they aren’t broken, but rather experiencing the natural results of perceiving high challenges or even threat. 
  • Immediately Actionable Tools: Putting out the stress fire isn’t always easy but it can be systemized when we understand how the body works.  Four basic components that make up a person’s stress fire extinguisher include body movement, breathwork, self-massage, and mindfulness practices that can easily be woven into daily routines.



For organizations inclined towards creating more sustainable and cost-effective solutions, determining the cause of the fire is critically important as well as decidedly humane.  Building a better mental wellness program begins with implementing the three steps of the good plan above plus:


  • All Hands Perceptual Education: Going beyond simple stress education, understanding how one another perceives their environment is important for breaking down unconscious bias and lessening the opportunity for unintended traumatization.
  • Role Clarity: Improving role clarity is one of the greatest predictors of psychological safety within an organization.  Clearly outlining and updating who is responsible for what, when, and why will act as a long-term fire suppression system even when things start heating up.
  • Demand/Control and Effort/Reward Ratios: Two well-known causes of stress in the workplace are the ratios between the demands placed on an employee and their ability to exert control in meeting those demands as well as the amount of effort work responsibilities require in comparison to how well rewarded, they feel.  This is an important two-way conversation between leaders and employees to clearly understand both responsibilities and perceptions of support.
  • Leadership Awareness Training: Leaders are in leadership for a reason; they have chosen to not only carry more responsibility for the organizations’ performance but also for the people who contribute to that performance.  Too often, because of the multiple demands associated with leading, even the most well-meaning leaders can become disconnected from others within the organization.  Helping leaders to understand specifically what motivates individual employees is a foolproof way of identifying smoke before a fire starts.



Creating a culture of sustainable mental wellness is no small task and achieved by only the most committed and dedicated organizations.  After beginning with the above Good and Better components, implementing the Best mental wellness program strategies include:

  • Perform Routine Reassessments: What isn’t tracked won’t likely be improved!  Performing regular perceived stress and purpose assessments gives both leaders and employees important data on their stress levels and degree of protection so that potential issues can be addressed early.
  • Coaching Support for All Levels: Both planned-for and unexpected changes at either work or home can spark stress and resistance.  Implementing coaching office hours is a powerful way to not only stave off burnout but also create a thriving culture of growth, innovation, and achievement.
  • Strategic Advising: Having a highly-skilled mental wellness professional at your fingertips to keep leaders advised on the latest best practices will ensure that your organization stays well ahead of the curve in predicting upcoming issues and preventing recurrent flare-ups.
  • Build Internal Communication: Every well-functioning culture thrives in clear and compassionate communication.  Creating standards of communication that eliminate shame triggers and re-traumatization promotes deep trust within a community of people working towards a common goal.
  • Promote Trauma-Informed Awareness: Experts note that 90% of people have experienced a significantly traumatic event in their life, which has a high likelihood of affecting their perceptions, performance, and productivity.  Creating trauma-informed workplaces is inclusive of many of the concepts in this Best practices section.
  • New Employee Indoctrination: Just as new employees are trained on job skills and responsibilities, embracing them in your intentional culture of mental wellness through education and practice is critically important to preserve and strengthen the entire organization.

So, What’s the ROI?

Now that we’ve talked about the features and kicked the tires a few times, what exactly is the return on implementing a successful mental wellness program?
A 2014 PriceWaterhouseCoopers analysis showed that “successful implementation of an effective action to create a mentally healthy workplace, on average, can expect an ROI of 2.3”; that is for every $1 spent, the company receives $2.30 return primarily in the areas of improved productivity, reduced absenteeism and presenteeism, and lower compensation claims.  The report continued to note that implementing multiple targeted areas, such that were outlined in the Good, Better, and Best practices above likely lead to further increases in ROI.  Furthermore, it was noted that the single most critical success factor was employee participation, which is why we recommend beginning with empowering employees in learning how to put out their own fires while training leadership in turning down the heat.