Since the pandemic, the importance of mental health has rightly been amplified. And while mental health issues have worsened, the pandemic showed us just how resilient people are.
Leaning into this, it’s important to pay attention to what we’ve learned throughout these past couple of years and the positive action we can take off the back of it.
In this blog, we’ll walk through what consumers expect from brands around mental wellness, what activities they’re doing more of to protect their wellbeing, and how employers can meet employees where they’re at.
What do consumers want from brands, really?
Mental Health Awareness month in May saw a flood of brand actions around mental health. But what’s the verdict from consumers?
First off, support for mental health messaging in ads varies widely by age, market, and income level. Gen Z lead the way for supporting this at 73%, dropping to a low of 46% among baby boomers, who are more inclined to sit on the fence.
Higher earners are 18% more likely than lower earners to support brands featuring mental health messaging in ads. This is despite the fact that lower earners in many markets, including the UK and USA, are more likely to say they’re more prone to anxiety.
Consumers in Germany and France post the lowest figures of support across all 9 markets, at 32% and 39%, respectively. Over 1 in 10 in Germany say they oppose brands featuring mental health messaging, again the highest of all markets tracked. This is perhaps surprising considering that consumers in Germany are the most likely of all 48 markets we track in GWI Core to say they’re prone to anxiety (44%).
The lesson for brands? There’s no one-size-fits-all. Ads won’t land with everyone – even among those who are most impacted.
So what’s the logic here? Well, it might boil down to some consumers refusing to place a huge amount of importance on brand messaging. It might be seen as a more superficial layer of support, rather than something that directly impacts them. It’s something for brands and marketers to bear in mind before jumping in.
In fact, consumers seem to care more about what brands are doing behind the scenes. When asked what’s important for brands to do to support mental wellbeing, some of the top actions are centered around brands’ internal practices. Brands offering mental health support to their own employees sits at the top of the leaderboard.
Among Gen Z, 38% say brands being transparent about their own internal mental health initiatives is important – ranking third overall for this group and scoring 8 percentage points ahead of Gen X and baby boomers.
The key takeaway? Brands should practice what they preach first and foremost.
How a brand behaves internally matters more than the messaging they put out.
Younger consumers are generally more receptive to a broader range of brand actions in this space, so there’s plenty of opportunities to meaningfully connect with them.
While not the most important overall, sharing uplifting messaging online, hosting discussions around mental health, and working with celebrities or influencers to share their own experiences all appeal more to Gen Z and millennials.
Madhappy, a clothing brand centered around positivity and wellness, has appealed to many young people with its mission-driven approach. Aside from creating clothing with positive slogans, the brand engages its community by providing resources.
One of these is a podcast where the founders have weekly conversations with guests like Emma Chamberlain about their personal experiences – something that’s resonated with younger listeners.
It’s all about keeping it real, being open and honest about personal experiences, and ultimately sharing relatable stories.
How Covid changed consumers’ mental health habits
Consumers are taking more action to manage their mental wellbeing. Using our Zeitgeist research from September 2021 and April 2022 in 6 markets, we can compare what consumers are doing more of to look after their mental wellbeing since the pandemic started.
Some of the activities that have witnessed the biggest growth are centered around reducing certain media or online activities.
Taking a digital detox has seen the biggest increase during this time, growing by 77% since we last asked this question.
Other activities like spending less time reading or watching the news and spending less time on social media have also seen significant jumps.
It’s hardly surprising that this is the case. Throughout the pandemic, consumers became weary of negative news overload. And in 2022, it feels like the world is moving from one crisis to another. Covid, the Ukraine conflict, the cost of living crisis, and now monkeypox – to name a few.
For many people, taking time to switch off from social or the news gives them some respite from all the negative or distressing stories they come across.
While there’s no doubt many benefits to social media, several studies suggest a link between increased social media use and depression or anxiety, particularly among young people.
It’s not hard to see why. Unrealistic images and lifestyles online are one likely culprit. Brands are under growing pressure to stop editing images of models, almost to the point where they’re unrecognizable. Skims and Vanity Fair are just some brands that have recently been accused of misleading audiences through photoshopped campaign content.
With anxiety and stress affecting younger generations more, it’s important for brands to take responsibility for the content they share online and the messages they give to audiences. Covid showed us the value of real, relatable content online – a sense of rawness that was often missing in the past. It’s something worth tapping into long after Covid becomes a distant memory.
Mental health initiatives should be a workplace norm, not a perk
The pandemic has spurred long overdue conversations around mental health in the workplace. Let’s paint a scenario, some of which might feel familiar.
Pre-pandemic, we see a parent of three juggling family life, a fast-paced job at a creative agency working flat out to reach tight timelines, grappling with busy, time-hogging commutes. They’re stressed, tired, and burnt out.
Their company says it prioritizes mental wellbeing, with company messaging around the importance of “taking time for yourself” being a common theme. In reality, they barely have time to tuck their kids into bed at night, let alone have headspace to take care of themselves.
It’s so easy to preach about the importance of mental wellbeing, to highlight the things people should do, but speaking about it isn’t enough.
Meaningful change starts from within. Businesses need to create a culture that enables people to have the space to take a step back in the first place. They also need tangible initiatives available to support employees.
It’s why the top actions employees want from their employers are concrete measures that have an immediate impact. Providing greater flexibility in work hours and mental wellbeing days off are both actionable steps people can take.
Notably, digital mental health tools and therapy, which many companies are starting to offer, rank bottom of the list. While important to some, it shows many employees value changes to their working life more.
Often, mental health tools are leaned on when issues become problematic. Tangible changes to work-life like greater flexibility might be more preventative – something that allows employees the space to manage their wellbeing more proactively before it becomes an issue in the first place.
It’s important to consider the different stressors people might face. Leaning on the parent example again, we know employed parents are more likely to say they’re currently facing workload pressures, struggling to find a work-life balance, or struggling to adjust to post-pandemic life.
This helps to explain why parents are 13% more likely than non-parents to say they want greater flexibility in work hours and 11% more likely to want exercise/wellbeing classes. On the flip side, employed people who aren’t parents are more likely than parents to say they’re facing uncertainty in life purpose or with their career.
Struggles look different for everyone. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to supporting employees, so offering a range of initiatives they can pick and choose from is the best way to support everyone’s individual needs. Mental health issues are a leading cause of absence, so it quite literally pays to care.
Space Doctors, a UK agency, is just one example of a company that’s leading with mental health in mind. Its “back to school” program gives employees time and budget to do a course aimed at improving their wellbeing. It can be anything from creative writing to a dance-based course.
Other companies are providing early Friday finishes during the summer time. Both of these are good examples of solid measures that give employees some freedom and headspace to learn something new or have time for themselves. It’s safe to say that nobody wants to go back to our pre-pandemic norm of work if they can avoid it, so creating systems to safeguard employees’ mental health should be a priority.
While there’s no doubt mental health issues have heightened since the pandemic, it’s important to look at what we’ve learned throughout this time and lean on some of the positives we might have gained.
Many people now have a heightened awareness of their mental wellbeing, and are taking steps to build their own unique mental wellbeing toolkit – whether that’s switching off from certain media or using mediation apps. More people also recognize what they want and need from employers, with mental wellbeing support increasingly expected. It’s not enough to go back to business as usual, so it’s down for both employers and brands to lead by example.