Mental Health as Corporate Priority in the COVID-19 World

Another pandemic awaits — the impact of COVID-19 on mental health.

The coronavirus pandemic is a global tragedy. At the end of March, over 38,000 people are confirmed dead, nearly 800,000 confirmed infected. Infections are accelerating exponentially, with hundreds of millions forcibly quarantined and even more sheltering in place. Over $20 trillion has been lost on the world’s stock markets. Companies are laying off employees, and hoarding shoppers create shortages of food, medicines, and basic supplies. Parents are suddenly homeschooling, while simultaneously in online meetings all day. Elders are off limits. Surgeries, treatments and diagnostic tests are postponed. People glued to social media get and spread real and fake news. Even hugs are now considered dangerous.

The less visible side of the pandemic and its effects on work is a mounting mental health crisis. In 2019, depression and anxiety cost society more than $1 trillion a year according to the World Health Organization (WHO). During the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath, this will increase dramatically. People with anxiety disorders are already suffering heightened symptoms in this uncertain environment.

And mental health impacts physical health. Sustained stress depresses the immune system and worsens chronic conditions. The isolation of quarantines and remote work, all while managing disruptions at home, is already taking a toll — and it’s only been a few weeks.

Work impacts mental health — for better and for worse.

For many, work is rewarding. It can provide structure and purpose, and is central to our mental wellbeing. Men especially report job satisfaction as a main driver of happiness. Nevertheless, work can be detrimental to our mental health. Working too long and too much (burning out), not being challenged at work (boring out), and working with no purpose (sensing out) can all exacerbate mental health issues, just as sudden unemployment can lead people to question their self-worth.

Long hours and an “always-on” work environment can lead to burnout, which the WHO listed in 2019 as an occupational hazard that was not being successfully managed. Gallup employee engagement studies show that 87% of workers worldwide are not properly engaged and that 20% of workers in North America and Europe are “actively disengaged” at work. Mental health leaves of absences are among the largest costs to companies.

Cognitive impairment from mental illness can be particularly limiting in a knowledge economy that relies more on analysis than manual labor. Cognitively demanding jobs are more difficult for people distracted or disabled by mental health challenges. Knowledge workers, however — whose output can be harder to measure than, say, that of factory workers — can also hide the effects of mental health challenges longer and more effectively. With a shift to remote working, these challenges present additional issues. When they are at home, classic micro-signals such as tardiness or distraction or changes in grooming and weight — are harder to perceive. Substance use is also easier to dissimulate.

Business plays a central role — especially in periods of extreme stress and remote work.

For the past seven years, we have worked with managers across multiple sectors on interventions to help improve mental health in the workplace. As organizations adjust to new realities amid COVID-19, now is the time to think about making mental wellbeing a central responsibility of managers. Historically, we have treated mental health at work as important but not as a core element of strategy. It is time to bring mental health to the top of our priority list. COVID-19 makes prioritization urgent, and it will remain relevant beyond it.

While many companies are promoting mental health initiatives, these interventions mostly focus on stress reduction and time management. Free yoga and mindfulness classes, while nice perks, have proven ineffectual. Some interventions are viewed with skepticism. We can better support employees’ mental health in a disrupted workplace by designing tasks more effectively — and being trained in mental-health-at-work issues. Companies already committed to human sustainability will fare better through the pandemic. Their managers will be better trained to reinforce messages of hope, safety, connectedness and self-efficacy.

To design a mental health strategy, start with yourself and examine your biases.

We all bring biases and distinct life experiences to mental health. Reflecting on how you tend to behave in addressing mental health issues can help protect your organization and colleagues from your biases. It might be hard for someone with an abusive alcoholic father to address alcoholism or substance abuse by an employee in a caring, therapeutic manner.

Managers are often experiencing some of the very same stressors and mental health challenges they are helping their employees navigate. We can learn a lot from our own experiences, but we also need to recognize that they are narrow. Even if you have been a caregiver, for instance, you don’t know how another person experiences that role.

In our research, we found that most managers exhibit a mix of approaches, depending on their own situations, personalities and organizational contexts. The spectrum ranges from overprotective (“Kangaroo”) to the avoidant (“Ostrich”) or ruthlessly expedient (“Hyena”). Each approach weighs the needs of the manager, the individual and the company. Effectively correcting for your biases is key to move from intervention to prevention. Encourage managers in your firms to do the same and change their develop new managerial habits (For our suggestions please see https://www.linkedin.com/posts/carinknoop_rethinking-managerial-habits-in-a-pandemic-activity-6645128209530707968--Cb.)

To effect systemic change, however, requires organizational buy-in.

Every firm requires its own approach to mental wellness, which may include the promotion of a positive or purpose-driven culture, the fostering of healthy relationships, and the availability of formal resources such as mental health insurance coverage and Employee Assistance Programs. Each organization is unique, but some organizations and industries — law firms, financial services firms, or startups — involve more stressors and mental health hazards than others. Managers in these sectors need to be more alert to stressors and their indicators, particularly when they go beyond lower employee productivity.

An organization’s ability to significantly improve mental health outcomes, decrease absenteeism and presenteeism, and increase employee engagement is often tied to the level of buy-in at the top the organization. Depending on the nature of your organization and who you are trying to enroll in your vision for mental health in the workplace, consider which approach below works best with your colleagues and HR partners.[1]

“Data-oriented”: Quantitative attitude toward mental illness. Arguments are logical, analytical and fact-based. Sample: What should we do about the fact that depression, anxiety and substance abuse affect XX% of our staff, costing us $XX/year?

“Strategic”: Holistic attitude toward mental illness. Arguments are intuitive and integrative. Sample: “We know that depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and low engagement are major issues in the workplace — how can we get a better understanding of the magnitude of these issues and the connections among them?”

“Process”: Task-oriented attitude toward mental illness. Arguments delineate an organized, sequential and detailed approach. Sample: How can we develop a comprehensive action plan to understand and tackle these issues? From whom can we learn? What is each step in the process?

“Feeling”: Sympathetic attitude toward mental illness. Arguments are more emotional and interpersonal. Sample: How can we stand by and not tackle a source of great distress for our employees and their families? What is our moral responsibility?

The call to action: developing habits of care

COVID-19 has made several things clear. At one level, it is reinforcing habits we should already have: washing our hands, staying healthy, planning for contingencies, smiling at strangers, and being grateful for what we have. When all is well, we tend to focus on how the world affects us — now we are being forced to consider how we affect others. We are learning to look around and observe other people’s behavior. We realize that we are all connected and therefore highly vulnerable, personally and collectively. Individual actions can affect the well-being of others at home and at work.

Research for Compassionate Management of Mental Health in the Modern Workplace[2] showed us that the same held true in the workplace. It is imperative to remain mindful of how our speech and behavior impacts the health of others. A community and a corporate culture are the sum of thousands of habits practiced daily. Though habits take time to form, they do so faster under pressure.

Today’s HR directors are on the front line of helping organizations manage the current crisis and set the stage for deeper, longer lasting transformation — one in which Chief Mental Health Officers sit at the leadership table to define and constantly refine interventions. Mental health is not static and employee needs are in constant flux. Just as a one-size-fits-all policy does not work, neither does a one-time-fits-all approach. Investing in prevention and prioritizing mental health in the workplace will result in a favorable ROI — better employee performance, more revenue, lower turnover, and better health outcomes for employees and their families. It may even save lives.

From the authors: We welcome feedback and input as we all learn together. Please feel free to reach out to us at cknoop@hbs.edu and jquelch@bus.miami.edu and share widely.

[1] Based on the Herrman Whole Brain® model.

[2] John Quelch and Carin-Isabel Knoop, Compassionate Management of Mental Health in the Modern Workplace, (2018), 10.1007/978–3–319–71541–4.

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Carin-Isabel Knoop

Carin-Isabel Knoop

Passionate about encouraging human sustainability and equal access at work. Collector and connector of people and ideas.