Before the COVID-19 pandemic, one in five Canadians experience mental health problems, but today, approximately 50% of Canadians say their mental health has worsened due to COVID-19. For months, mental health experts have been warning us that a mental health pandemic will follow as a result of COVID-19. It will take all of us to help alleviate the impact of COVID-19 related stress, anxiety, and depression can have on ourselves, loved ones, colleagues, and communities.
We have now been taught in the hardest way that employee wellbeing is critical to a business’s success. Without healthy and productive employees, maybe organizations without the resources to ride the fallout of COVID-19 will likely not survive or recover their business costs.
Never has there been more urgency for organizations to champion mental health initiatives in their workplace.
- As a reminder, one in five people were struggling with mental illness
- Two-thirds don’t get the treatment they need due to neglect, stigma, cost, wait times, and lack of access to treatment
- According to the Canadian Mental Health Association of Canada, our country spends 7.2% of its total health-care budget on mental health, which is among the lowest of all G7 countries; This is surprising for many Canadians who take pride in our universal healthcare system and readily available resources.
- According to the World Health Organization, mental health problems are our biggest challenge of the century with depression as the leading cause of disability and premature death
- So what was happening within organizations prior to COVID-19?
According to a Canadian Mental Health Association study:
- 70% of Canadian employees were concerned about the psychological health and safety of their workplace and reported that the primary cause of their mental health problem or illness, was workplace stress, with depression and anxiety being reported as the top two issues
- 66% of respondents reported that their workplace did not have any policies or programs to reduce stigma
- 75% reported that their workplace does not have an overall workplace mental health strategy to help them with their depression, stress, and anxiety at work.
But, should employers be responsible for their workforce mental health?
Even though mental health remains somewhat of a sensitive topic in the workplace, it appears that employees want their employer to champion mental health and well-being.
According to a survey of office workers in July 2018 from Peldon Rose:
- 72% of employees want employers to champion mental health and well-being.
- Nearly three-quarters of workers say they want their employers to champion mental health and well-being in the workplace. This is rated as more important than equality (48%), sustainability (38%) and diversity (31%).
- This is the case for all generations, who prioritize mental health and well-being above all other causes – Gen Z (76%), Millennials (73%), Gen X (75%), Baby Boomer (56%).
The Cost of Doing Nothing
It will be years before we know the real impact of COVID-19. Before the pandemic, the financial fallout from lost productivity relating to mental illness cost Canadian businesses an estimated $6.6 billion annually, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada; As well, mental health struggles being the leading cause of disability claims.
Even so, most organizations are behind in implementing key initiatives to improve mental health in the workplace before and especially after COVID-19. As a result, organizations without innovative programs in place will see a rise in absenteeism and presenteeism at work.
What a Struggling Employee Experiences
Real-world data is an important part of what we do with our product. In that pursuit, we developed our platform to enable polling questions so we can really see what’s really happening to employees.
Before COVID-19, most people were relatively in the moderate-healthy range of the mental health continuum.
According to our data collected from over 4000+ members within our COVID-19 program:
- COVID-19 has deeply impacted 79% of people’s lives
- 45% say this is due to the major disruptions affecting their life, and they are struggling with a lot of uncertainty around personal and family health, job status and workload, social isolation, and financial problems
- In some professions like educators and healthcare workers, their anxiety has increased by over 60%
Due to the stress, anxiety, and uncertainty brought on by COVID-19, 50% of employees had already been sliding down the mental health continuum, meaning they are experiencing symptoms of psychological distress, which, if left untreated, will lead them on the pathway to burnout and depression.
Currently, employees are in survival mode, meaning they are working on getting through the day but have not processed what has happened to them physically, emotionally, socially, and mentally. Many are experiencing burnout, particularly those working in essential services.
For temporarily laid-off employees returning to work, there will likely be residual frustration, confusion, and anger due to the decisions leaders had to make to safeguard the business. They are coming back to work confused, less confident, more distrustful of their leaders and supervisors, and it is up to leadership to provide as much transparency and to rebuild morale.
Related Article: COVID-19: Return to Work Roadmap for Employers
How can employers take action?
Organizations should look at implementing initiatives around policy creation, communication, training resources, and early-intervention treatment: This can include creating policies and mandates around mental health at a corporate level; sharing resources through internal marketing channels to promote awareness; giving management and HR the training to identify issues and handle them successfully; and, providing employees with self-help tools and programs.
More than ever before, digital technology is playing a crucial role in the treatment of mental illness, opening up ways for people to access treatment well when face-to-face talk therapy and medication weren’t readily available. Investing in mental health initiatives for leaders and employees of an organization can help in several ways.
Reduce stigma and create a positive workplace
Let’s face it. There is still a stigma surrounding mental health. By revealing issues, people fear to become isolated, viewed as abnormal, and considered unfit for the job. Employers have an essential role to play in supporting employees with education about mental health and creating an open dialogue. Providing resources that promote awareness can help create an accessible and positive workplace, one that fosters engagement and attracts talent.
Focus on Early Intervention/Prevention
Considering that we spend about 60% of our time at work, and that work can be rife with stressors – workload, deadlines, behaviours and personalities of co-workers, management styles, worries relating to job security, and so-on, educating about healthy ways to cope with stress makes sense. It can help address issues before they become debilitating – and costly for the organization.
Treat Issues to Reduce Impact
You may or may not know if an employee is already suffering from mental health symptoms before COVID-19. But, having those resources already in place for an employee to use can get them the help they need quickly. This is where an HR manager’s role is critical to find high-quality, evidence-based options to ensure success. Providing a variety of options for an employee to get treatment – whether through your benefits plan, a wellness counselor on staff, online programs, or a combination of these, will help reduce suffering for that employee and help address their reduced functioning at work.
Improve Productivity and Engagement
When you are physically fit, you tend to be healthier. It’s the same with mental health. Improving the mental health of your employees – making them mentally resilient to stress from the pandemic – can improve thinking, decision-making, workflow, and relationships at work. All of these translate to increased productivity. And your employees will see you playing a role in helping them to be their best selves.
Reduce Costs and Risk
Promoting mental health can also be a wise financial decision for businesses. Investing in a mentally healthy workplace can have a cost savings effect by reducing absenteeism (employees frequently absent due to illness) and presenteeism (at work, but ill and distracted), as well as disability claims and lost productivity. It also contributes to helping you meet workplace health and safety guidelines to reduce legal exposure.
Due to some organizations needing to transition their workforce to remote work for a few months, over 70% of employees are feeling burnt out, likely due to always being “on”. As we know, burnout is dangerous for an organization as it is a major pathway to depression. As a result, organizations must find ways to disrupt this pathway for their employees, as our current mental health system won’t be up to the task anytime soon.
To make matters worse, delivering an effective mental healthcare program is difficult as there’s no one size fits all approach. Each organization and profession have its own unique stressors. People leaders need to assess what are the key stressors happening to their workforce and to look for resources that not only allows them to provide support in confidence, it needs to be affordable, readily available, and unique to their profession. This is what will help you build an effective mental health strategy to combat struggles during and after COVID-19.
Without effective mental health resources in place, it will cost your organization your best employees. The silver lining is that we have the technology, data, and resources to do so.
There are many resources available to help with the task of getting started; here is a couple: