Recent studies show that anxiety and depressive disorders have increased steeply in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, as we are nearing a year and a half of pandemic living, robust discussions around the subject of mental health have started taking place, both in the context of work, and in society at large — what it is, what the effects of bad mental health are, and how we seek and provide treatment. Perhaps most importantly, the pandemic has changed how we talk about mental health — as more and more people are affected by poor mental health, it has gone from a “they” problem to a “we” problem. The deeply rooted stigma surrounding the topic is slowly dissipating, and in the professional world, there is a realization that this is not just affecting individuals, but it’s a whole workplace problem.
The discussions are to a great extent driven and shaped by younger generations, such as millennials and Gen Zers, who are gaining influence in the workplace and in society at large, and who are making their voices heard. These generations see mental health as a natural part of overall health, and as such, they are demanding more from employers in terms of options for access to mental health care, as well as overall workplace culture and how mental health is viewed, treated, and talked about.
In the workplace, mental health has long been a subject most people have shied away from talking about for fear of being overlooked for a promotion or being seen as unreliable or difficult. As a result, mental health, and mental health care, have been a low priority when it comes to health care options and duty of care packages. It has been close to a non-existent subject in company culture as a whole.
Employers who want to stay competitive going forward will have to do better. Not only does it make sense from a purely human perspective to shift how we relate to, and act on, mental health, it also makes sense from a business perspective. That’s because the impact of mental health on work is significant.
Pre-pandemic research, published in the Harvard Health newsletter, found that workers with depression reported the equivalent of 27 lost workdays per year. Out of these, nine were sick days or other time off, and the remaining 18 days reflected a loss of productivity. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression and anxiety alone cost the global economy around one trillion dollars a year in lost productivity.
Other research shows that employees with depression are more likely than others to change jobs frequently. And when it comes to the expat population, studies indicate that mental health concerns are greater with employees working abroad than with domestic ones.
Overall, the numbers are clear — not only can mental health issues such as depression and anxiety lead to lowered productivity but they also impact retention, and considering the pace at which mental health has declined this past year, the effects on work going forward can end up being significant.
In the US, for example, a tracking poll from Kaiser Family Foundation shows that the number of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety disorder and/or depressive disorder has gone from 11% in the first half of 2019 to 41.1% in January of 2021. Many other countries are reporting similar statistics. Additional data show that it is the younger generations that are proportionally more impacted by mental health concerns. They are also the ones driving the call for change in how we relate to and address mental health.
A study by Businessolver, presented at a recent webinar, shows that 87% of millennials and 82% of Gen Zers believe their employer should do more to promote mental health. The same study reports that about 95% of people — employees, HR pros, and CEOs — say that mental health is as important as physical health, and yet 64% of employees believe that if someone reached out to HR about a mental health issue, it would negatively impact their job security. Clearly, there is still a gap between how we think and feel about mental health, and how we act on it.
Taking all the factors above into consideration, it’s easy to see that for employers to stay competitive, mental health, and mental health care will have to be a priority going forward. Areas to address include:
- incorporating mental health into company culture, meaning company culture will have to be open and supportive of mental health struggles and mental health care. This includes communicating clearly about what mental health resources are available.
- analyzing data around mental and physical health care programs to see how they are being used, and then build wellness programs so that they relate to both physical and mental health in a meaningful way.
- ensuring easy and affordable access to mental health care.
We’re in an extraordinary time right now where how and where we work has changed to a great extent in a short period of time. As a result, employers are actively reassessing support programs and employee benefits. Mental health — care and well-being — should be a natural part of this shift. As Adam Grant writes in this NYT article about languishing: “As we head into a new post-pandemic reality, it’s time to rethink our understanding of mental health and well-being. ‘Not depressed’ doesn’t mean you are not struggling. ‘Not burned out’ doesn’t mean you’re fired up.”
There are still hurdles to overcome with how mental health is viewed — at work and in private life. Aside from the fact that we are talking about the health of employees, colleagues, friends, and family, the incentive to make sure mental health and mental health care are adequately and openly addressed and covered by employers should be obvious — not only will it be a way to attract the best talent, but it will also increase productivity and retention. It will be a win — for the company, its people, and society at large. In short, it’s a win for all of us!
By: Felicia Shermis
NYT — Languishing article:
Flexjobs, Mental Health America study:
Kaiser Family Foundation:
Harvard Health Publishing: