From mental health to mental fitness: Raise the bar on employee well-being

March 19, 2021 - 13 min read

Jump to section

Shifting the curve

What can companies do to build employee mental fitness?

The poor mental health of the majority of workers represents both a risk and an opportunity for companies to rethink their approach to employee mental health.

This is Part 3 of a series on employee mental health.

  • In part 1 we described the “massive middle” — the 90% of employees who are neither clinically ill nor mentally strong. 
  • In part 2 we explored the business impact — to the bottom line but also the top line. 
  • In this article, we’ll look at how companies can strengthen the mental fitness of all employees to secure the adaptable, resourceful, innovative workforce they need to succeed in a fast-changing world. 

The massive middle — the 90% of employees who are neither clinically ill nor mentally strong —  is both the urgency and the opportunity. Think about your own organization. There is a lot of wasted human potential in the middle. These individuals are hurting personally and professionally. The people around them are suffering. Every interaction suffers. 

The people in this negative, low-energy, uninspired, and pessimistic middle group are not “everyone besides our HiPos.”  They could be your high-potentials. The dots in this graph below don’t represent just one person — oh yeah, Rob in Accounting is the third dot from the left. Any of us could be the third dot from the left, or third dot from the right. How can you build your future with this foundation? 

workforce mental health curve

You didn’t hire negative, low-energy uninspiring people. This isn’t who they are, it’s just how they feel and function at this time. 

And feelings and function can change. 

Build a thriving, mentally-fit workforce with BetterUp Care™

Shifting the curve

People can move between different levels of well-being. There is mounting evidence that personal growth and a focus on developing core skills can stop the downward slide and create momentum in the other direction. Companies that choose to focus on strengthening mental health and developing mental fitness for the middle, rather than just interventions for those in crises and leadership development to supercharge those at the top, can shift the massive middle to the right, unlocking that human potential. 

That shift represents a real and sustainable improvement in employee well-being across the organization. The result: better lives, better relationships, more opportunity for personal growth and professional achievement, and greater organizational agility and performance.

Mom in flames, revisited

Remember the story we started with in Part 1: a mother, back from maternity leave and struggling, ready to leave her job because she couldn’t see a way forward. She got a coach.

Understanding and self-compassion helped me find room to breathe. With my coach, I found ways to be more physically healthy but also ways to pay attention and interpret situations more healthily. 

I only had Coach Donna for a few months. To be honest, I could have used 6 more months. But it was a start. I didn’t quit my job. I didn’t quit my spouse. I got excited about my work and my team again.

I had found my footing on a small island of stability, a new mindset, and insight into how I worked — my coach gave me operating instructions and a set of tools for myself. I was learning how to work on my own mental strength.

Did my company have other ways to support me? Maybe. In any big company, you go looking into employee benefits and find a huge menu. It can be overwhelming. Especially when your problem is … overwhelm. 

We had an EAP: but I wasn’t ill. I was exhausted, going through the motions and struggling for air amid a lot of change and stress. Besides, the idea of taking time to find a therapist who could grasp all of the work-related concerns felt beyond the pale. I had a “career counselor” but she represented me in performance reviews so… no. We had a meditation app. But I couldn’t seem to sit still. We had a fitness benefit, but I hadn’t found a new gym since I moved. There were discounts on ski passes and an employee help-line. Nothing really seemed to fit. 

When we talk about supporting people’s mental health and well-being, we’re talking about mental fitness. Mental fitness is way beyond self-care. Sometimes you do need a break, a rest, a massage, a mediation. But you typically can’t get a massage or a nap on-demand in the middle of a busy work week. Even if you can, the effect is temporary relief, like a bandaid. 

Strong mental health means you have the skills and people around you needed to improve, and maintain, your well-being. When you have high well-being, you are thinking, feeling, and performing at your best no matter what the day brings.

For example, one of the core skills to strengthen is resilience.  BetterUp found that individuals with the highest resilience had higher overall well-being throughout the pandemic, by 6% on average. Not only that, when the resilient took a hit to well-being, the size of the rebound was bigger by 1.2x. By building resilience, you build a stronger capacity to manage change and grow through challenges. 

The hard part is that everyone’s needs and journey to mental strength and fitness are unique. No one size fits all. That’s a big reason why the market for wellness products is so active and fragmented and why we all have at least 3 or 4 abandoned well-being apps on our phones.   

The reason we’re so passionate about this is because we’ve seen that this whole curve can shift significantly to the right with personalized support.  Of the people who start out “stuck” (low well-being), 77% will significantly improve their well-being state by 3-4 months.

Sign up to get exclusive access to content, resources, and tools.


What can companies do to build employee mental fitness?

1. Recognize mental fitness and well-being as the foundation of performance

Well-being is the biggest lever we have as business leaders and designers of our company cultures. Going beyond self-care, mental fitness cultivates core human skills and behaviors.

2. Reframe employee mental health around strength and growth 

Rather than focus on fixing what’s wrong, focus on unlocking potential, going from “functional to fantastic” as our Science Board Advisor Martin Seligman says. Provide relief, yes. Then support people’s aspirations: they want to keep growing; they want to get closer to thinking, feeling, and performing at their best. 

3. Invest in building mental strength throughout the organization 

Personal growth can drive engagement and organizational performance, innovation, and agility. The data overwhelmingly shows that, yes, you can measurably strengthen core behavioral skills in your people, whatever state of mental health they are in. 

4. Personalize support that meets employees where they are 

People need help to develop their own skills and tools for mental fitness – whether they’re coping with heightened stress or want to be a better leader in a challenging moment. 

5. Model mental fitness from the top 

What would it look like for your company to pursue mental fitness in the same way we do physical fitness, with joy, playfulness, and community? Like doing your cardio, the personal journey toward mental fitness is made easier when you build a culture of fitness and community of practice around it.

6. Implement mental fitness at the team level

We spend a lot of time “at work.” For most of us, our direct supervisor and close peers shape that experience — this is where you put mental fitness into practice. The team can be the biggest lever for driving meaningful improvement in employee well-being across the organization. Ensuring that managers are equipped to lead with empathy and know how to talk with their team about mental fitness and taking advantage of employer-provided benefits is crucial to support individuals in their efforts and see widespread benefits for the organization. 

Read more about our series: Stuck in the middle: what is lost in a workforce that is not ill and is not well

New call-to-action

Published March 19, 2021

Read Next

21 min read | September 24, 2021

What is mental fitness? A how-to for exercising your brain

What is mental fitness and why is being mentally fit important? We explore what it is, how it benefits our health, and a few mental fitness examples. Read More
12 min read | March 16, 2021

Why mental fitness is of strategic importance

Mental fitness is of strategic importance. In part 2 of the Stuck in the middle series, we explore the effects of poor mental health on performance. Read More
21 min read | June 7, 2021

Take your mind to the gym: what it really means to be mentally fit

What is mental fitness, and does it involve lifting weights? Learn the difference between mental fitness and mental health, and how to build your mental muscles. Read More
Research & Insights
13 min read | October 8, 2021

World Mental Health Day highlights the pervasive, and personal, need for mental health support

World Mental Health Day focuses on mental health in an unequal world. BetterUp research finds widespread need for mental health support but different pressures, different... Read More
20 min read | April 15, 2022

The best mental health podcasts to listen to any time

Mental health podcasts can teach, inspire, and reinforce healthy habits. Learn more about mental health podcasts and check out some of our favorites. Read More
16 min read | June 2, 2022

When tough isn't enough, build mental strength. Here's how

Building mental strength can help you be more resilient in unpredictable times. Here are 7 ways to improve and complement your mental toughness. Read More

Stay connected with BetterUp

Get our newsletter, event invites, plus product insights and research.