Employer Disability Practices Center

Wellbeing as Workplace Culture: A Brief Examination of one Firm’s Approach to Changing its Landscape of Wellbeing

Link to Full Publication: Wellbeing as Workplace Culture: A Brief Examination of one Firm’s Approach to Changing its Landscape of Wellbeing

Authors: Renée Edwards, Samantha Deane, Abigail Clemson


America is suffering. COVID-19 and its aftermath, economic uncertainty, civil unrest and a heightened sense of inequality in our society are bringing trauma to many Americans. According to a report by the medical journal Lancet, rates of depression have risen by 28% as a consequence of the pandemic, and anxiety has increased by 26% over pre-pandemic levels1.

Because 60% of the population is working, these issues manifest themselves in the workplace. In a 2021 American Psychological Association survey, nearly 3 in 5 employees (59%) said they have experienced negative impacts of work-related stress in the past month2.

Another report, this one by the Surgeon General3, notes that 76% of US workers reported at least one symptom of a mental health
condition since the pandemic began; 84% of respondents said their workplace conditions had contributed to at least one mental health challenge.

And according to a report by Mental Health America, 71% of employees found it difficult to concentrate at work, compared with 65% in 2021 and 46% in 20184.

Industry pays the price. Poor mental health and stress are known to negatively affect employee job performance and productivity, engagement with work and communication with coworkers.

Lost productivity, absenteeism, having to recruit and train employees due to high turnover, and even higher health insurance costs are all consequences of poor employee mental health.
Projected over a 12-month period, workers with fair or poor mental health are estimated to have nearly 12 days of unplanned absences annually compared with 2.5 days for all other workers, and mental health issues in the US workforce cost employers $47.6 billion in lost productivity each year5.

Perhaps as a result of this public health crisis, worker demands for their employers’ attention to their mental wellbeing are escalating. According to the Surgeon General, 81% of workers reported that they will be looking for workplaces that support mental health in the future; and a vast majority (87%) of employees think actions from their employer would help their mental health6.

While in the past, many companies and employees may have thought of mental health conditions as something that developed “outside the workplace,” these past three years of COVID-19 have made it overtly clear that our workplaces directly affect our mental health in every way. Moreover, it’s obvious that a lack of effective structures and support at work, especially for the increasing number of workers with mental health conditions, can affect workers’ ability to do their job well. These shortfalls can undermine people’s attendance at work, lead to higher levels of turnover, and even prevent people from getting a job in the first place.

While employers recognize the need to address employee mental health and wellbeing, many companies are struggling to find the most appropriate responses. A 2022 survey of 50,000 employees by Mental Health America7 found that:

  • Employees believe only 2 in 5 managers encouraged them to take time off when under stress.
  • Only 3 in 5 managers care about their wellbeing.
  • While 47% of workers know about their employer’s mental health services, only 38% feel comfortable using them.

Clearly the stigma of mental illness still weighs heavily in workers’ willingness to disclose their disability and get help. While leadership speaking openly about their own mental health issues is a known contributor to employees’ willingness to disclose their mental health issues, only 34% of employees report that their leaders do so.

According to the National Organization on Disability (NOD) Employment TrackerTM, a confidential benchmarking survey on workplace disability inclusion practices:

  • 95% of employers now have senior leaders who promote mental health initiatives in some fashion.
  • 64% of employers now say that they have staff or a senior leader responsible for serving as a mental health ambassador.
  • But only 20% of employers require managers to take part in an annual mental health awareness training.

While mental health and wellbeing in the workplace is now clearly becoming a priority for employers, the level of resources and tools needed have not been easily found nor available. Every year, NOD fields more and more questions from employers wondering what they can do to specifically help address mental health and wellbeing for their employees. Clearly, industry is struggling to find solutions to this growing workplace crisis.

That is why NOD teamed up with Rutgers University in 2023 to write this brief about efforts by one large professional services firm, Ernst & Young LLP (EY US), to change the landscape of wellbeing within its workplace culture. It examines relevant academic research and frames the firm’s efforts within research-identified effective practices and challenges.

In writing this, we sought to understand the development and implementation of this well-established wellbeing initiative, consider how it compares with research identifying successes and pitfalls related to other employee wellbeing programs, and assist similar organizations in considering methods to pursue effective wellbeing initiatives and programs.

Data for this brief was collected from interviews and quantitative, deidentified data provided by EY US.