The coronavirus pandemic has impacted us all in many ways. People have lost their loved ones, lost their sources of income, or even still dealing with COVID-19 symptoms or long COVID. Those who may not be directly affected by these situations may have a hard time dealing with the social isolation and COVID-19 restrictions. These and many more COVID-19-induced disruptions are driving a mental health crisis that is threatening the workplace.
Mental health problems have been a silent killer in the workplace long before the coronavirus pandemic. Workers have long complained about anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems stemming from poor work conditions, burnout, and physical health challenges. This kills workers productivity and company profits, and mental health needs to be prioritized. The prevalence of mental health problems in the workplace only changed slightly in the last decades; however, the trend took a sharp upturn as the COVID-19 hit many countries.
From March 2020, the prevalence of anxiety and depression more than doubled its level in previous years. In the United States, the prevalence rate of depression jumped from about 8.8 percent pre-COVID to 23.5 percent in 2020. The prevalence of anxiety among Americans also took a similar surge, rising from 8.2 percent to about 30 percent.
With the continuous social isolation and waves of COVID-19 restrictions, these mental health problems further led to a sharp rise in alcohol and drug abuse rates as well. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of June 2020, 13 percent of Americans reported starting or increasing alcohol and drug use as a way to cope with the stress and emotional rigors of the pandemic. This has aggravated the opioid crisis in the country, with the American Medical Association reporting a surge in opioid-related deaths in more than 40 U.S. states.
These dire statistics have been driven by COVID-19 disruptions to how we live and work. Workplace-related disruptions, including pay cuts, furloughs, and disorganized work patterns, inadequate remote work support, and work overload has taken a huge toll on employees’ mental wellbeing, threatening their health and workplace productivity.
Mental health problems are a leading cause of absenteeism, presenteeism, and, in turn, lost productivity. Pre-COVID data estimates that more than half of all working days lost annually from absenteeism are stress-related, with an annual cost of more than $84 billion. According to World Health Organization, depression and anxiety cost the global economy more than $1 trillion per year.
What many employers may not have realized is that mental health crisis in a workplace triggers a vicious cycle, causing physical health problems to an individual, which, in turn, lowers performance and increases employer healthcare spending.
Mental health has been an undiscussed aspect of employee health and is largely underrepresented in workplace wellness offerings. Employees who suffer mental health challenges often face stigma and do not receive ample support to improve their wellbeing. However, with the heightened burden of mental health problems among employees and its potential impact on their overall well-being, employers need to prioritize employee mental wellbeing in the post-pandemic organization.
The primary driver of the Great Resignation shaking up corporate America are the inadequacies of the conventional workplace culture, one of which is poor support for employee health. Employers have to pay closer attention to the individual health and work needs of their employees to develop a work culture that supports employee wellbeing.
One of the most important strategies to enhancing mental health support in the workplace is eliminating the stigma mental health problems have been associated with. Addressing workplace mental health problems may not improve if the channels to solving these problems are closed. Your organization needs to stamp out the conventional stratified leadership approach to these issues and create a feedback culture model that allows employees to freely share their concerns and needs with managers and supervisors.
This continuous feedback channel helps HR managers and supervisors to detect and address mental health problems early enough.
Further, reshaping workplace culture involves remodeling work demands and structures based on employee needs. Blanket work models and policies keep employees in roles and positions they are ill-equipped to handle, leaving them mentally and physically drained and unproductive. Employers can mitigate this by involving employees in internal initiatives and policy creation. Run an initial assessment to determine what works best for who.
Infuse some flexibility to work patterns and allow workers some degree of control over their work. For instance, not everyone works efficiently from home and remote work may potentially cause more work-related stress for some workers. Therefore, launching a blanket remote work model for all employees may be counterproductive.
Find out what work structure works best for each employee, and leverage these data to build your work structure. If an employee is assigned to a new project or client, provide the requisite training, resources, and support to ensure they handle the task efficiently. For remote workers, poor access to the right technology and resources, and poor communication may further intensify work stress and stifle their mental wellbeing.
Reorganizing your workplace culture also means building a more inclusive and diverse workplace. Employers may not realize how discrimination based on gender, race, sexual orientation, or religion impacts employee mental wellbeing and, in turn, productivity. Are employees with a different sexual orientation treated differently from others? Is your C-suite represented mainly by a certain gender?
Integrating diversity and inclusion into your workplace policies, including your recruitment processes, evaluation, and performance management demonstrates to all employees that you value them for their input irrespective of their social inclinations. This goes a long way to improving employee mental wellbeing.
Further, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, employees are anxious about returning to the office. Tensions are higher and workers want to be certain employers can safeguard their health as they return to work. Inadequate COVID-19 mitigation strategies in the workplace may keep workers on edge about their health, lowering their focus and attention at work.
Although Employee Assistance Programs have been responsible for providing employees with access to health offerings and resources, workers with mental health problems have been largely disadvantaged in more ways than one. Even early on in the pandemic, many workers reported poor access to mental health offerings in their workplaces. To improve mental health and well-being of employees post-pandemic, companies must rethink the roles of their employee assistance programs.
Employees, therefore, need these mental health programs now more than ever. A key approach many employers are adopting is to offer virtual mental health programs. Easy access to counseling, psychotherapy, and mental health aids, such as online mindfulness classes and yoga exercises are crucial since many organizations have adopted hybrid or remote work.
One organization has taken the lead in this area,, Global Healthcare Accreditation. Global Healthcare Accreditation’s new organizational accreditation actually recognizes employers who prioritize mental health, as mental health is one of the pillars of it’s new GHA for Business Accreditation. (link to GHA). Employers that prioritize mental health and employee well-being can apply digitally for the accreditation and be recognized for their commitment to their employees and everything they have done for them over the past year.
Addressing the Burden of Mental Health Problems in the Workplace
The pandemic has revealed the burden of mental health issues in the workplace and the deficiencies in corporate wellness programs. Mental health problems are one of the leading causes of lost productivity in the workplace, and with the pandemic taking a huge toll on employees’ mental health, employers need to take proactive steps to change the workplace culture around mental health and building a healthy workforce.