Pandemic Creates Opportunity For Companies To Explore New Ways Of Supporting Mental Health Of Workers
Millions of people across the globe watched Meghan Markle tell Oprah about her own struggles with mental health. Markle recalls being pregnant with her first child and desperately asking “the Firm” for some type of help to address her increasingly frightening suicidal thoughts. No matter how you think about Markle, Prince Harry and the royal family, it’s alarming to hear about someone desperately asking for help and feeling unheard.
Anyone who struggles with mental health in this country knows what Markle went through is incredibly common. In October of 2019 Harvard Business Review in their article, “Research: People Want Their Employers to Talk About Mental Health” discussed the research conducted by Mind Share Partner, SAP, and Qualtrics on mental health challenges and stigma at work in the United States.
Even though 200 million workdays are lost every year due to mental health conditions, only 60% of employees have talked to their employers about their mental health issues and 86% of participants believe a company’s culture should support mental health.
Don’t forget: this research was conducted in 2019 before we knew what the future had in store for our world.
Currently more and more individuals are being vaccinated and plans are being put into place for Americans to return to school and work. As companies strategize to formulate their return-to-work plans, their leaders have to be willing to talk about mental health. A recent study reports 1 in 3 Covid-19 survivors now suffer a neurological or mental disorder. These findings make it necessary to address mental health for all employees.
Mental health needs to be on the forefront of every organization’s mind for the following three reasons:
1. Employees Have Changed
The full impact of the pandemic on individuals has yet to be seen nonetheless most individuals are not the same people they once were pre-Covid-19. Whether the pandemic and shutdown affected you ever so slightly or if it ravaged your entire life, individuals have been in a heightened state of anxiety for over a year. The employees coming back to work are not the same people who left. They’ve been through something that rewired the neurons in their brains and changed them forever. Chronic anxiety and depression can have a significant impact on your overall health and well-being.
Companies can’t simply focus on logistics; they have to be willing to recognize and talk about how their employees are actually feeling. This is an ideal time to look for new ways to restructure their work cultures and ensure their employees are getting the mental health help they need.
2. Work Has Changed
After a year of seeing each other’s homes, pets, spouses and children in the backgrounds of Zoom meetings employees are finally starting to realize work doesn’t need to compete with our personal lives. Instead of seeing work from 9am-5pm, employees started to see they could integrate their work into their day at whatever time they wanted so they could still spend time with family when they weren’t dead tired, exercise when it worked best for their body and call family during a decent hour.
From this sprang increased discussion about “work-life integration.” And before you dismiss this idea, it’s not another “work-life balance.” For many years “work-life balance” has been thought of as work competing for your time and energy against your personal life. “Work-life integration” is being able to see the different aspects of your life and blending them together in a way that allows you to better manage your time and energy. When you “integrate” something or someone, you’re bringing things together and helping them blend in with everything else.
Organizations need to expand the way in which they see their employees. The employee isn’t just an individual but part of a larger system. The expectation that employees can shut off who they are and how they feel the moment they log into work has never been a realistic expectation. Companies need to see their employees as whole people who need to be treated holistically, which means they can’t ignore when their employees are struggling with mental health issues.
3. Young Workers Need This Now More Than Ever
The population hit hardest by the pandemic are Millennials and Gen-Zers. Millennials currently make up over one-third of the current workforce and as more Gen-Zers graduate, it’s estimated that by 2030 they will make up 30% of the workforce. This growing population of the workforce values mental health and will leave a job if they don’t have their needs addressed.
That same study from Mind Share Partner, SAP, and Qualtrics on mental health found that 50% of Millennials and 75% of Gen-Zers have left a job for mental health reasons. There are a number of factors that contribute to this statistic. The two biggest are 1) young people are more open and willing to talk about and seek help for their mental health issues and 2) the rate of depression and other mental health issues have risen in Millennials since 2013.
It’s important to keep in mind that these are transformative and important years for both generations. Organizations have a unique opportunity to help the younger population navigate this time because many of them are feeling very isolated with no experience to guide them through. Younger generations are asking themselves some very important questions. They don’t want to return to work like nothing has happened; they want their lives to have meaning and purpose and want support from the people around them.
What Can Organizations Do?
Focus on the cornerstones of mental health which are active listening, empathy and building trust.
1. Active Listening
Recognize your employees (at any age) have changed. How each person processed and managed this past year will be different. Don’t make assumptions that you know exactly what anyone else went through. This means you need to listen to your employees and hear what they need when returning to work. Also remember this might change as we go because it’s hard to know how you’re going to feel once you’re back in the office. As you listen to your employees think about how you can support them as they make this transition.
Practicing empathy is one of the most vital tools for all leaders in today’s workplace. Empathy is the ability to let go of your judgements and assumptions and try to stand in the other person’s shoes so that you can understand their perspective and experience. Empathy isn’t sympathy. Sympathy is simply feeling sorry for someone while actively distancing yourself from their experience.
3. Build Trust
Building trust starts at the top and I would urge all leaders to be willing to share some of their struggles with their employees. This doesn’t mean you have to share every difficult moment of the past year; it means being willing to show the people that work for you you’ve also felt scared, anxious and overwhelmed. When a leader is willing to show their humanness, it puts the entire company at ease and allows them to show they too are human.
The Best Thing Organizations Can Do Is Make It Free And Simple
In 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield published a study about Millennials and mental health. In addition to discovering since 2013 there has been a 47% rise in depression in Millennials, they also share that 1 in 5 don’t seek treatment and the biggest reasons are the cost and lack of convenience.
Companies need to provide mental health services for their employees. Simply providing health insurance and assuming that an employee will be able to find a therapist through their health plan is not enough. Finding the right therapist can be a very difficult process and many therapists don’t take insurance. And if and when you find a therapist many employees simply can’t find the time or energy to go to therapy on a regular basis.
With the explosion of telehealth and the rising number of mental health and coaching platforms being launched, there are so many ways companies can provide the help their employees need at this time. While no one will volunteer to go through a crisis, we must acknowledge that we’ve all been forced to go through one right now and the silver lining is that it’s through crisis that we learn and grow as nations and individuals. Maxwell Maltz, author of Psycho-Cybernetics once said, “Close scrutiny will show that most ‘crisis situations’ are opportunities to either advance, or stay where you are.” Organizations can use this opportunity to advance — advance their knowledge, resources and support they can provide to their employees and the next generation of workers.