It’s difficult to talk about.
Given the productivity-obsessed work culture that is predominant in the United States, discussions of mental health don’t take place as frequently or openly as they could, and to some, bringing up the topic may even feel unwelcome at times.
But long before COVID-19 reached our country, the U.S. was in the midst of another pandemic: the mental health crisis.
The results of the 2020 State of Mental Health Report, conducted by Mental Health America, a nonprofit organization, were shocking. The findings revealed that:
- Nearly 20% of Americans are experiencing a mental illness
- Of those Americans, more than half (57%) are not receiving treatment
- Over 10.3 million adults have serious thoughts of suicide, representing an increase of almost 450,000 people from 2019’s data set
- Over the last six years, the rate of major depression in young people has increased 4.35%
- 60% of young people diagnosed with depression do not receive any treatment
The mental health crisis isn’t left behind at the workplace door, either. According to the World Health Organization, the economic impact of depression and anxiety are estimated to cost $1 trillion a year in lost productivity. The effects of mental illness at work can be debilitating. Research from Drs. Debra Lerner and Rachel Mosher Henke tells us that depression affects a person’s ability to perform physical tasks about 20% of the time and reduces cognitive performance about 35% of the time. The Impact of Depression at Work Audit (IDeA), conducted by Ipsos Mori, a U.K.-based global marketing research company, found 64% of respondents with depression reported that cognitive-related challenges (such as difficulty concentrating, indecisiveness, and forgetfulness) “had the most impact on their ability to perform tasks at work as normal.” Presenteeism, in which a person shows up to work but is disengaged or unproductive, is exacerbated by these cognitive challenges. Unaddressed mental illness in the workplace doesn’t just cost companies time and money. It debilitates employees, and affects company culture. Now that the pandemic has forced many Americans to work from home until further notice, isolation and stress are making those mental health issues even worse.
So, what are some best practices in communications for companies to promote resources and support to their employees and stakeholders? Here are four points to consider:
- Communicate, communicate, and then communicate some more. Make sure employees are aware of the available HR benefits and resources to support better mental health and know how to access these resources. Open avenues of anonymous communication for employees with questions who are unwilling to reveal their mental health diagnoses – biweekly employee surveys are great tools to facilitate this type of communication. Emphasize to employees that all health information and accessing mental health resources are confidential.
- Pay attention. Working from home can make it more challenging to spot symptoms of mental illness at work, but it is still possible to see the signs. Pay attention to how employees are performing and communicating. Has an employee’s work performance dropped suddenly? Have they taken more days off than usual? Have you witnessed an unexpected emotional outburst? These could be signs that an employee is struggling with a mental health issue. You should address these signs by speaking one-on-one with your employee, emphasizing that their health is your priority and identifying the resources they can use.
- Express empathy. If an employee is being less responsive to electronic communications or has become significantly less productive, it’s easy to respond with frustration, especially in the current situation. Instead, approach the problem with empathy and understanding – oftentimes, you can make a serious impact simply by showing someone that you care. Also, be aware that employees may be seeing signs of mental illness in their children exacerbated by ongoing lockdowns, which can further increase workplace stress. Remind parents of family mental health resources provided by the company.
- Be mindful of intersectionality. Mental health issues can intersect with issues of race, gender, socioeconomic status and more. Black women, for example, may experience greater workplace stress due to ongoing racial discrimination, both in the workplace and in society at large, as well as harassment and the impact of police brutality on their communities. Furthermore, Black women tend to receive worse medical care in the U.S. The result is that people whose mental illness is impacted by discrimination and biases need special support and resources to address these issues. Consider implementing an Employee Resource Group (ESG) to build in more support systems for employees suffering different types of stress and strains and be sure to take a zero-tolerance policy toward harassment of all kinds at work.
I’ll leave you with one final consideration: investing in bettering the mental health of employees helps them as well as the company as a whole. According to the World Health Organization, for every $1 invested towards scaled-up treatment for common mental health disorders, there’s a return on investment of $4 in improved health and productivity. The key to fostering a culture of support and openness is communication.
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