Mental Health In The Workplace: Leading In The COVID-19 Context
by Jason Wingard
In the age of coronavirus, many employees are juggling health concerns and mounting anxiety alongside their jobs and families, leaving them at grave risk for stress, loneliness, burnout, isolation, and depression.
As Stephen W. Smith, a mental health expert, told SELF: “We need to accept that mental illness, like any other chronic illness, will become debilitating if it is left unaddressed… To ignore the symptoms will only lead to more self-destructive behaviors and ultimately to a greater downturn in workplace productivity.” (Even prior to the pandemic, the World Health Organization estimated that depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1 trillion annually.)
Thus, in these trying times, leaders must support their staff’s mental health more than ever. Not only is it the right thing to do for their team members, but it is the right thing to do for their businesses. In fact, the W.H.O. estimates that every $1 invested into “treatment for common mental disorders” will return $4 in improved health and productivity. Here are three ways leaders can support the mental well being of their employees during this pandemic and beyond.
A 2019 report from Mind Share Partners found that 80% of workers with a mental health condition said that “shame and stigma prevent them from seeking treatment” — and that just 37% see their company’s leaders as “advocates for mental health at work.” Perhaps that is because only 14% of workers, according to an Accenture survey, have ever heard senior leaders discuss the importance of mental health, and even fewer (10%) have heard a leader speak about being personally affected.
Today’s leaders no longer have a choice about whether or not to advocate for mental health. They need to vocally address the issue, describing their own challenges and urging team members to seek help if they, for example, feel hyper-lonely from self-isolation or debilitatingly anxious about the spread of COVID-19. “Changing the culture is a top-down process,” Kelly Greenwood and others wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “Modeling disclosure and vulnerability as strengths, not weaknesses, goes a long way toward reducing the stigma and setting the tone for transparency.”
Case in point: After EY launched a mental health awareness program and had a leader speak about her postpartum depression, calls to its counseling line reportedly increased by 32%. Following in EY’s footsteps, leaders can share their experiences on the next all-hands Zoom call, or send a company-wide email acknowledging the difficulties of social distancing. They can also create public and private arenas in which employees can share their own feelings. The distributed company GitLab has a “#mental_health_aware” Slack channel, for instance, and Accenture UK offers its employees access to Big White Wall, a “confidential, professionally managed chat environment where they can remain anonymous.”
Promote Virtual Resources
Due to the unique nature of the current situation, some mental health solutions will obviously not be appropriate. Leaders cannot encourage managers to take their direct reports out to coffee, nor can they host group workshops to discuss mental health struggles. With the breadth of virtual resources available, however, leaders should not feel limited in their offerings. Greenwood’s research, in fact, discovered that the “most commonly desired workplace resources for mental health” were a “more open and accepting culture, training, and clearer information about where to go or who to ask for support” — all of which are possible in a digital workplace.
In terms of where to turn for support, leaders should first promote employee assistance programs (EAPs), which can connect workers to counselors and help them navigate pressing issues such as nutrition, child and elder care, and even medical bills. Although many organizations already have EAPs in place, the average utilization rate is a dismal 4.5%. As psychotherapist Amy Morin wrote: “[M]any companies don't spend enough time reminding employees” about EAPs, or clarifying they are “free of charge and completely confidential.” Thus leaders should strive to promote EAPs, as well as highlighting any mental health services that are covered by insurance.
They should also take advantage of innovative digital tools. Starbucks, for instance, has begun offering 20 annual therapy sessions to its 220,000 U.S. employees and their dependents through a platform called Lyra. The coffee behemoth gives its employees access to the popular meditation app Headspace, too, as do companies like General Electric, Google, LinkedIn, Unilever, and Hyatt. During this period of isolation, leaders could also consider offering their employees access to exercise apps, such as Daily Burn or Glo.
Put Empathy First
In 2019, a Mental Health America survey of 10,000 workers found that 55% were afraid to take a mental health day because they thought they would be punished. As Greenwood and her co-authors explained, data like this shows that, “Regardless of how robust a company’s benefits are, it is culture that ultimately reduces stigma and empowers employees to actually use those benefits without fear of retribution.”
Leaders, therefore, should focus on nurturing a culture of openness and empathy — not only through their own actions, but through the actions of their managers, who must be given specialized training in recognizing and addressing mental health issues virtually. “Managers are on the front lines every day,” explained Hill Ferguson, CEO of Doctor On Demand. “As such, with the right training they are positioned for critical early intervention and can solve problems and resolve issues when they are small.”
As for the leaders themselves, they need to integrate empathy into all of their decisions — from company-wide COVID-19 policies — ie. extending sick pay to those caring for family members — to simple directives, such as encouraging employees to spend time outside (and away from their screens). Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp, exemplified this type of empathetic leadership in a recent staff memo. To employees caring for children or other relatives, he said: “[A]ll we ask is that you find a balance that works for you. Whatever works for you works for us.” Whether employees work a few hours a day, or, on some days, not at all, Fried said they will still be paid their full-time salaries.
The leadership of Fried and others like him will be remembered long after the coronavirus has dissipated. In these unprecedented times, leaders need to prioritize their employees’ wellbeing and support their mental health above all else. As Alex Gourlay and Betsy Schwartz, both executives, wrote in Modern Healthcare before this pandemic even began: “Regardless of where the various stressors and sources may lie, the call for help needs to start with employers, to provide the programs, services, education and training necessary to demonstrate that employees being their single greatest asset isn't just a cliché.”
Originally published on March 20, 2020 on Forbes.com. Jason Wingard is dean and professor of the School of Professional Studies at Columbia University, with an academic focus in the areas of leadership development, professional learning and human capital management. Author of "Learning to Succeed: Rethinking Corporate Education in a World of Unrelenting Change" and "Learning for Life: How Continuous Education Will Keep Us Competitive in the Global Knowledge Economy."