Has the Psychological Pandemic Arrived?

Angry. Isolated. Stressed.

These aren’t the feelings one would associate with a vaccinated person who can now walk around without wearing a mask. But after a year of lockdowns, after a year of doing double and triple duty on the job, and after a year of trying to juggle all this with children or other home-life drama, that’s about where millions of workers are at the moment. Indeed, COVID-19 may be on its way out in some parts of the world, but experts are already warning that a “psychological pandemic” follows closely behind. 

(For more on the topic, see our cover story in the current issue of Briefings magazine.)

It’s an issue that companies are well aware of, and they’ve been doing all they can to prioritize the mental health and emotional well-being of their people. They’ve increased employee assistance programs and added “health advocates,” basically a concierge-like service that can locate therapists, schedule appointments, and coordinate benefits coverage. They’ve added mental health apps like Talkspace and eMindful, and started training managers to spot warning signs for deteriorating mental health. They’ve launched anti-stigma campaigns to encourage employees to use these services, and some have even hired on-staff psychologists or chief wellness officers. With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, they are flooding chat rooms and inboxes with notifications, holding Zoom meetings, and even having managers talk to their teams about the services offered.

And it still may not be enough. Greg Button, Korn Ferry’s president of global healthcare services, says unless companies take steps to reduce long working hours, increased workloads, and other underlying causes of anxiety, burnout, and stress, nothing they offer will help. “You can offer whatever you want, but if you don’t encourage people to take time for their emotional well-being, nothing is going to change,” says Button. To be sure, he says when it comes to mental health, many companies are “purely checking the boxes.”

Critics also point to the fact the private spending on mental health services has actually declined in the last decade as evidence that companies are happy enough to offer a mindfulness app and move on. While overall mental health spending has increased to around $225 billion annually, less than 40%, or only about $90 billion, comes from the private sector. Moreover, experts say just because mental health services are available doesn’t mean people will use them. When it comes to mental health, employees are still very leery about talking to coworkers or using company services, says Brian Bloom, vice president of global benefits at Korn Ferry and cochairman of the firm’s COVID-19 task force.

One way to get people more comfortable, says Button, is to make mental health part of the overall wellness conversation, as opposed to its own isolated category. He says people are perfectly fine opting in to apps that monitor their heart rate, help them quit smoking, or track their exercise routines and nutrition. Linking those activities to a meditation class, for instance, can help put emotional well-being in the context of overall health. It can also help improve and optimize offerings; while personal data is anonymized, companies can see what mental health apps are being used, by whom, and where. They can use that information to create more targeted messages and programs that, in turn, could help increase engagement and normalize the conversation around mental health.

“People aren’t used to this kind of attention around mental health,” says Button. “It’s about changing behavior.”



Originally published by KornFerry on May 20, 2021.

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