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The Mental Health Crisis: A Toolkit for Business Leaders

Supporting employee mental health in the post-pandemic workplace.

Key points

  • Mental health problems have skyrocketed, resulting in a drop in productivity and a rise in costs for businesses.
  • With some guidance from mental health experts, employers can support the strength and resilience of their greatest resource: their people.
  • To address mental health, create a culture of wellness, practice compassionate leadership, and provide access to direct services.

As Americans ease tenderly out of the pandemic, one thing is clear: mental health is not going to rebound rapidly just because the masks come off. Anxiety and depression rates have tripled since the onset of the pandemic (JAMA Network Open). Between 2019 and today, the number of American adults reporting anxiety and depression has risen from 11 percent to 42 percent (CDCP Survey). That means there are over 97 million people, almost half of the American workforce, suffering from anxiety and depression. There is currently no indication of those numbers dropping back to pre-pandemic levels, and experts predict that mental health challenges will be the primary non-virus-related health crisis in the wake of the pandemic.

Polina Zimmerman/Pexels
Source: Polina Zimmerman/Pexels

Business leaders are wisely taking note. Due to a drop in productivity, increased absenteeism, increases in benefit spending, and higher turnover rates, the financial cost of employee mental health challenges is startling. In pre-pandemic years, before the current surge in mental health disorders, mental health conditions cost employers between $100 and $500 billion per year, and 217 million days of lost work, annually, in the United States alone ( Worldwide, depression and anxiety typically cost the global economy over US$1 trillion annually due to drops in employee productivity (World Health Organization).

Time will tell the full impact of the current mental health crisis on business growth and financial bottom lines, but one thing is clear: if organizational leaders don’t play a proactive role in supporting the mental health of their employees, their organizations, like their people, will suffer. Given that the current surge in mental health needs has outpaced provider availability, there’s an opportunity for business leaders and human resource departments to play an increasingly critical role in maintaining the resilience of their greatest asset: their people.

Being proactive about personnel mental health pays off. Estimates suggest that a $1 investment in mental health leads to a $3-$5 return on investment (One Mind At Work). Not only does addressing mental health increase productivity and reduce benefit spending and absenteeism, it ultimately reduces employee turnover, as well, and this is a money saver. Hiring a new employee costs a company an average of 33 percent of the employee’s salary (Employee Benefit News). Given that depression doubles an employee’s likelihood of leaving a job (One Mind At Work) and that 9 percent of employees cite wellbeing-related concerns as the reason they left their jobs (Work Institute), employers wanting to spend less on hiring would do well to invest in mental health support for their current personnel.

How Can Business Leaders Support Mental Health?

While the specific interventions that are feasible may vary depending on the size of your company, I recommend this three-pronged approach regardless of company size: 1) Create a culture of wellness; 2) Foster compassionate leadership practices; and 3) Support employees in accessing direct care that meets their mental health needs.

August de Richelieu/Pexels
Source: August de Richelieu/Pexels

Create a Culture of Wellness

Creating a culture of wellness starts with understanding mental health needs and prioritizing them. As Unilever’s chief learning officer told HuffPost journalist Tim Munden, "If you want a high-performing company, you need resilient, healthy employees.” Make use of these tried and true facts about mental health in order to create the foundation of a culture of wellness.

  1. Job satisfaction and longevity go up, as do overall mental health and self-esteem, when we feel engaged in work that feels meaningful and authentically aligned with our values and our aspirations. Help employees foster a sense of purpose and autonomy in their work and career trajectory. Create a collaborative environment where employees can bring their ideas forward, work with colleague mentors, and encourage professional growth and development for others. Offer opportunities for ongoing learning in areas of employee interest. And help employees see how their efforts contribute to the company’s larger goals, values, and impact on the world.
  2. Time outdoors soothes the central nervous system, reduces anxiety, and leads to the release of “feel-good hormones” like dopamine and epinephrine that help ward off depression. Consider creating appealing outdoor spaces employees can retreat to for breaks, or even for individual or small group work sessions. If you have enough land, invest in building walking trails; the combination of fresh air, sunlight, and exercise is the mental health Holy Grail. If you’re a small company without land or financial resources or your workforce is working remotely, create an incentive program to get people to go for a local walk during their breaks.
  3. A healthy work-life balance reduces stress, generates more positive engagement with work, and allows for health-critical sleep. When we are sleep deprived, the amygdala, a part of the brain that regulates mood and emotion, doesn’t function properly and we are vulnerable to both depression and anxiety. Late night work hours, particularly involving screen time, disrupt our natural circadian rhythm by impeding the production of melatonin, our natural sleep aid, and replacing it with adrenaline and cortisol. Assess your cultural norms. Is there an expectation, spoken or unspoken, that the employees respond to texts or emails at all hours? Are people rewarded, implicitly or explicitly, for working extra hours and prioritizing work over family, fun, and sleep? Extra short-term employee productivity may strike employers as a good thing. But maintaining mental health—and the financial and productivity gains that come with it for your company—is a marathon, not a sprint. So set a culture of daily balance whenever possible, and provide adequate vacation time and PTO for balance over the long haul. Finally, assess your own behavior; actions speak louder than words, and the behavior of the leaders sets the tone. Model, from the top down, that balance is valued, rewarded, and considered best practice.
  4. We benefit from connection over isolation, support over shame, and information over ignorance. Many people fear talking openly about their struggles because they fear being judged, or even professionally punished. When mental health struggles go underground, they escalate, and solutions become much harder to access. Therefore, it’s critical to reduce the stigma around mental health within your organization. Companies, large and small, are learning that talking openly about mental health pays off. Provide workshops and seminars with experts, and create opportunities for people to share their personal stories with each other. Top-down modeling is effective here, as well. When leaders share about their own mental health challenges and successes, employees feel empowered to do the same. We thrive on feeling supported by each other, and on knowing we are not alone. Normalize mental health struggles through programming that creates opportunities to bring personal experiences out of the shadows. The result will be not only be decreased personal suffering, but increased creativity, productivity, longevity, and organizational loyalty. There are highly accessible, creative resources you can make use of to publicly prioritize and de-stigmatize mental health—some are more general, while some focus on specific groups, such as BIPOC employees in the workplace. The options abound, and you can find the resources that fit the needs of your organization, and most importantly, your people.
David Mceachan/Pexels
Source: David Mceachan/Pexels

Compassionate Leadership

While you do not have to become a mental health expert, it is helpful to know how to spot mental health problems so you can support employees who may be struggling. There are some common signs of depression and anxiety that business leaders and managers can learn to recognize. For example, someone with depression will often have a flat or sad mood, or uncharacteristic anger or irritability. You may see decreased productivity and creativity, difficulty making decisions, and memory trouble. A depressed employee may work more slowly, make more errors due to brain fog and reduced executive functioning, and may be less participatory due to social withdrawal and/or a drop in confidence and self-esteem. Due to the biology of depression, you may see someone lose or gain weight, appear sleepy or unmotivated, and even talk or move more slowly than usual. Higher rates of absenteeism may also be a symptom of depression.

While depression may result in an overall sense of someone being slowed down, anxiety may appear to speed them up. When someone is experiencing anxiety, their central nervous system is flooding them with fight-or-flight hormones in response to perceived danger. As a result, you may see physical signs of agitation and tension. However, over time this chronic tension becomes exhausting and impedes sleep, so someone with anxiety may also present with fatigue and irritability. Someone with anxiety will usually be experiencing persistent and excessive worry and a lack of cognitive flexibility, all of which may impede their ability to problem-solve and work efficiently through tasks. Watch for signs of panic attacks, such as shortness of breath and flushed face, and for patterns of avoidance or absenteeism.

Compassionate leadership involves leaning in when you see these danger signs. Respond with care, concern, and curiosity. Encourage open dialogue so your employees can feel seen, accepted, and supported. Avoid punitive responses; employees who are struggling need to be affirmed, not punished or shamed. Strong relationships fuel job satisfaction and longevity as well as mental and emotional health, and those strong relationships start with compassionate, mental health-informed leaders.

To begin your compassionate leadership practice, call yourself to the table to actively listen to your employees, rather than expecting them to uni-directionally listen to you. The transition out of the pandemic shutdown is a perfect opportunity to do this. Listen: do people want to get back in the office? If so, respond by investing in internal infrastructure to promote long-term physical and mental health, such as standing desks, virus control systems, and adequate breaks. Do your employees want to stay remote, or create a new hybrid model? If so, invest in technology to make remote work efficient and sustainable.

Ask what is working and what is not, and expect yourself and your fellow leaders to adapt to the needs you are being shown, rather than expecting employees to not have needs. Problem-solve collaboratively to create concrete solutions and foster a sense of connection and support that boosts mental health and job satisfaction. And remember, women, BIPOC, and Gen Z/millennial employees have been hit the hardest by the pandemic. Proactively check in with them; listen, and respond collaboratively and compassionately to what you hear.

Christina Morillo/Pexels
Source: Christina Morillo/Pexels

Practicing compassionate leadership involves paying attention to the human experience. Invest in training your management and leadership team in cultural inclusion, active listening, and supportive responding vs. defensive or punitive reacting. Employees respond better to positive communication and a feeling of support (positive drive) than they do to negative communication and a feeling of intimidation (negative drive). Listen to your employees’ professional goals, and the challenges they face in reaching them. Help them clear blocks so that they can be creative, inspired, and successful. A company full of thriving individuals is a company that will be thriving.

Access to Direct Care

Support your personnel by making direct care services available. Again, depending on the size of your company and your available resources, your specific solutions may vary. You can provide health insurance with good mental and behavioral health benefits; you can have an in-house Employee Assistance Program; or you can bring in mental health experts to provide psychoeducation, support groups, and workshops to develop coping skills. If you are low on financial resources to develop programming, you can simply grant employees permission to leave work for mental health appointments without taking PTO. You can also seek out easily accessible, low-cost resources, such as e-courses and educational videos, and offer them to your employees as a health benefit.

Finally, remember that therapy isn’t the only therapeutic direct care. Consider bringing in chair-massage therapists one Friday per month, or offering regular in-house or virtual yoga classes (you may even have an employee who would like to run them!). If you are a large company with space and resources, offer an in-person or virtual exercise class. Smaller companies can create walking and running groups to encourage exercise at no cost to the organization, and this can even be done virtually if your employees are remote.

Tend to Mental Health Today to be Successful Tomorrow

Experts predict that mental health issues will be the primary concern facing businesses moving forward out of the pandemic. Many of the changes spurred by the pandemic are likely here to stay, such as work models that allow for a hybrid of in-person and remote work. While remote work offers new freedom and opportunity, it also comes with its own challenges—Zoom burnout, isolation, and porous work/home boundaries, to name a few. Companies that focus directly on promoting healthy boundaries and good self-care through a culture that values wellness are more likely to thrive. Leaders who take seriously the charge to develop compassionate leadership, who are open to listening and responding to their employees’ needs in order to help them be resilient and successful, will develop more resilient and successful companies. We are entering an era of attention to the company’s greatest resource: its people.

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