The State of Mental Health and the Workplace



David Rice
06/11/2020

mental health

If you’re feeling stressed, you’re not alone.

The state of the world is rarely comforting these days. Between rising unemployment, coping with one of the worst pandemics of the last century and the social unrest following the most recent spate of police brutality cases, the state of the world feels a bit more tumultuous than it has for some time and that gets reflected in the workplace.

For companies attempting to navigate it all, there’s been a lot to consider, be it taking a stance on social issues, figuring out how to reopen their businesses and determining what their workforce looks like in terms of size and function going forward. Amidst all that, however, has been a pressing issue that many have failed to prioritize for some time and now, as all this comes to a boil, could be crippling if not handled appropriately.

Mental health of employees is a difficult challenge to tackle. Just starting the conversation can be uncomfortable and finding the right way to engage employees so that they feel open and confident enough to speak to employers about their mental health is a process.

Shift in Priorities

Mental health awareness week may have come and gone, but the conversation about mental health at work is becoming more and more a top of mind issue for leaders.

As recently as last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had flagged mental health issues in the workplace as a top concern, with 1-in-5 Americans reporting some type of mental health issue. Workplaces, the CDC states, are an important place to improve public wellbeing as workplace wellness initiatives can help identify issues and connect people with services that help, thus lowering healthcare costs and improving employee productivity and performance.

That business case for mental health initiatives is a necessary evil and an important note for HR departments looking into examining their wellness activities. Now, as stress peaks around COVID-19 and racial inequality, employers should be prioritizing helping people through what is proving to be a difficult time.

Writing for MarketWatch, Shareen Luze, Head of HR at RBC Wealth Management, provided her own approach to employees who express that they are struggling.

“You know what I tell them? That it’s OK,” Luzes wrote. “This environment that we’re living in today is not normal, and none of us have any truly relevant past experiences we can draw on to navigate this. Why wouldn’t we feel uneasy and be worried?”

CONTENT HUB: Coronavirus and HR

Where HR’s approach to mental health seems to be lacking is not in the arena of coverage or a sincere desire to help, it’s in educating and supporting employees to use it. According to a recent survey from health and benefits provider Maestro Health, more than half of the 2,000 workers they surveyed had never received any kind of information from their employer about mental health.

Employees comfort level in raising questions about mental health and what’s on offer varied, often times by the age of their manager. For those with a manager in their 20s or 30s, having a discussion about their mental health was more likely to be something they are comfortable with versus someone with a manager in their 50s. Some of that comes down to preconceived notions about how older people view mental health concerns and the idea of therapy.

What’s perhaps just as concerning, however, is that less than one-third of respondents said they’ve had managers recognize a mental health issue, while twice as many have received comments or feedback from friends and family. That may seem natural given the nature of those relationships, but it does highlight an increased need for managers to be aware of and willing to speak about mental health issues with their subordinates.

Increased Effort is Warranted

The new normal requires a bit more effort on the part of HR teams to routinely check in on workers. The monotony of days spent working from home and the feeling of helplessness caused by the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people around the world due to coronavirus weigh heavily on us all. It’s what some mental health experts call a “chronic stressor,” a source of stress that is unrelenting.

Add to that, stress over the economic and job security of loved ones and friends and the stress of social issues that have come front and center during all of this, and what you have is a cocktail for depression, anxiety, loneliness and fear.

READ: The Importance of Addressing Social Issues in the Workplace

The issues aren’t just compounding, they’re interrelated. For employees of color, they are dealing with the fact that aside from the police brutality, other issues of systemic racism that have long plagued their communities, like health disparities and a lack of access to services, has resulted in COVID-19 impacting their communities disproportionately, with the cost being paid in lives.

On the other side, privilege is becoming more of a concrete problem than some kind of ideological phenomenon for white employees. Seeing that privilege laid out in clear ways on a regular basis is unsettling and causes one to ask a lot of significant questions about their own life experiences that can weigh heavily on hearts and minds.

“Understanding race and race equity is a process,” president and CEO of Nonprofit HR, Lisa Brown Alexander said in an interview with Entrepreneur. “Most people are socialized around certain beliefs and perceptions, and it's not easy to unpack those overnight. So admitting that you're at the beginning is the first step. Admitting you don't know something is hard, but the kind of tenacity that you need to build your business is the same kind of tenacity you need for understanding race and race equity in today's climate.”

Young workers are also more likely to struggle with these issues and suffer mental health complications as heightened feelings of stress tend to have a greater impact on them.

All of this can lead to a dangerous mental health landscape for the organization as a whole that sees engagement, productivity and ambition take a dive.

To avoid it, everyone from manager level and up needs to focus on empathy and listening. Additionally, organizations do have to show their values at times like these and strictly adhere to them. In doing so, find ways that the company can plug into positive causes and show how the work being done can make a difference across communities is vital. Doing so will help uplift employee spirits and remind them of why the work is worth doing.

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