The jarring effects of COVID-19 have displaced the 'norm' of working life and brought long-overdue attention to mental health. In the coming months, people will continue to face serious and unprecedented challenges to their mental wellbeing, which relate closely to the bizarre shift in our professional lives.
This radical change presents us with an opportunity to have our most meaningful conversation yet on the prevalence of mental illness in the workforce – and the possibilities for moving beyond it.
The mental health crisis should be a priority for businesses
Recent research suggests that poor mental health conditions among employees in the UK results in an annual cost of GBP 45 billion, owing to the effects of absenteeism, presenteeism, burnout, and worsening financial wellbeing. Half of all working days lost in 2018 can be attributed to stress, depression or anxiety. This trend is mirrored at a global scale, with depression and anxiety thought to cost the global economy an estimated USD 1 trillion each year in lost productivity.
For those of us who are privileged enough to continue working from home, we now find ourselves interacting with our peers exclusively through video conferences and virtual collaboration platforms. Although it has its merits, remote working can lead to feelings of isolation and disconnectedness; before the pandemic, loneliness was already considered an epidemic, affecting a fifth of the UK population. Similarly, greater sustained use of technology can have negative implications for mental health as people may struggle to disconnect from professional responsibilities.
Aside from the financial and health related costs, there are negative implications for a business when the creativity and intellectual appetite of its people are driven down by poor mental health.
This problem demands our attention on three main fronts: for the wellbeing of workers, for the prosperity of businesses, and for the sake of innovative business solutions.
Moving beyond the 'wellness' hype
Companies are incorporating wellness activities, including online fitness classes, wellness challenges and virtual after-drink sessions to keep the social spirit of the office alive – and at very low cost. As our physical freedoms are restricted, a weekly desk yoga class or a virtual meditation session can go a long way in keeping us active and engaged with one another.
The danger of the wellness hype is that it may obscure a more purposeful conversation on how companies should be providing basic resources and support to tackle the causes and symptoms of underlying mental health problems. These short-lived moments of indulgence, while beneficial, do not ultimately fulfil our basic needs or address our deeper anxieties, and can cater to a one-size-fits all approach to wellbeing. A fixation on quirky self-care trends exacerbates the idea that mental health management is solely an individual's private responsibility. In doing so, it relieves leaders and businesses of their responsibility to create more psychologically safe spaces of work.
Tackling mental health issues is vital for a strong and inclusive workforce
We are all experiencing lockdown differently, and this warrants close attention as people take on an increased burden of care for themselves and those around them.
Young professionals are the most likely group to be diagnosed with a mental illness. People identifying as LGBTQ+ are at greater risk of mental illness and women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety. Half of people with a disability have been formally diagnosed with a mental health condition, compared to 25% of employees with no disability. A quarter of employees have stated their ethnicity was a factor in symptoms caused by work compared to 1% of employees who are white. At least 8.4 million people in the US and an estimated 1.5 million people in the UK provide care to an adult with an emotional or mental illness.
Existing workplace structures can support better mental health
Existing corporate policies and initiatives are not actively achieving real change on the issue of mental health. Yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), corporate environments are ideal for creating a positive culture of health because:
In practice, these features can be leveraged to initiate positive actions, such as making mental health assessment tools available to employees, hosting workshops that address depression and stress management techniques, and providing managers with training to help them recognise the signs of stress and depression in team members.
Most importantly, employees need to be given opportunities to participate in decisions about issues that affect job stress. This means facing the practical topics of a liveable wage, sensible working hours, reasonable performance demands and transparency around existing gaps in support.
This is the moment for leaders to act
Leaders need to take ownership of the role their organisation plays in the health of their employees. Our primary response to the mental health crisis needs to be an inclusive and institutionally led process, in which policies are created to serve staff across all levels of the organisation.
Equally, we all have a responsibility to practice greater compassion and understanding in the day-to-day decisions we make in the workplace. Let us incorporate bolder and more inclusive solutions to create robust, resilient, and happy working communities.