Employee Mental Health Floundered During the Pandemic. Now’s the Time to Build It Back Up

Mental health is now part of employers’ duty of care.
By: | May 18, 2021

Mental illness remains a squeamish subject for many people, but among health care professionals it is being addressed no differently than other non-communicable diseases such as cancer or diabetes.

As with those diseases, there are inherent factors including age and genetics. But there are also many behavioral factors such as smoking and inactivity, as well as poor nutrition and sleep.

For employers, the inclusion of mental health as part of their duty of care obligations has both benefits and risks.

Companies that support their employees’ mental health are more productive. Those that do not expose themselves at least to lower productivity and higher turnover, as well as higher health-care costs.

“It is time to infuse, hear me well, time to infuse mental health into the workplace,” said Dr. Kennette Thigpen, vice president of clinical crisis and specialty service at Workplace Options, during a virtual session featured in the 2021 RIMS Annual Conference.

“Mental health is a foreseeable risk,” added her co-presenter, Dr. Robert L. Quigley, senior vice president and global medical director at International SOS. Although he emphasized the “moral and ethical duty of care,” he also noted the “legal and commercial” elements of mental health in the workplace.

“Going back to the bottom line, Companies that build a culture of health, including mental health, yield greater value for their investors,” he said.

Stress Takes a Tool on Productivity

Thigpen noted that in many cases people don’t see the levels of anxiety in themselves. That starts a downward spiral for the individual, the team, and the company.

“We don’t see it coming. Then when productivity declines, colleagues have to pick up the slack, and their morale begins to decrease and they become burned out. You can see how quickly it becomes a vicious cycle,” she said

“When our body goes into the stress response our brain takes a 60% decrease in function. That leads to distraction, poor decision making, memory difficulty, and errors; overall decreased productivity and either absenteeism or ‘presenteeism,’ where people are present but staring at the walls. And this is the really mind-blowing part: the emotional brain is still working at 100%.”

Taking care of employee’s mental health isn’t just the right thing to do, however. It can also increase company value, Quigley noted.

As evidence he cited a study published by a colleague several years ago. “He demonstrated arithmetically a connection between a culture of health and stock price,” he said.

Thigpen added, “Stress is the silent productivity killer. Good mental health is good for business, not just increased productivity, but decreased health-care costs.”

Taking Action

Once risk managers — and, it is hoped, senior executives — at workplaces understand that mental health as a foreseeable risk is part of their duty to care, the next logical step is to take action. That becomes its own challenge, because most people are still afraid to talk about mental health.

“It’s been a don’t-ask-don’t-tell situation,” Thigpen lamented, “because employees are afraid that if they say something they might be passed over for a promotion or even be fired. But it is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act to use someone’s mental health against them.”

The safest approach, she said, is to “assume everyone is at risk. Consult with employees one-on-one. Listen actively and validate. You don’t have to agree, just validate. Empathize and engage. Involve employees in their own care. Given them options. Be sure you and they are clear about next steps.”

Quigley concurred. “No one is immune from mental illness. It crosses all ages, cultures, ethnicities, and levels of education. It crosses all sectors of the workplace.” He speaks from first-hand experience in that assertion, having worked in corporate offices in North America to mining operations in Australia.

“A few years ago,” Quigley related, “George Cope, [] the CEO of Bell Canada, had a family experience with mental illness, and was not happy with the way the clinical folks were managing the condition because no one wants to talk about mental illness. So he said, ‘let’s talk.’ He invested a huge amount of his own money to erect billboards across Canada, bout every 10 miles, saying just that: ‘let’s talk.’ They are much more comfortable as a society talking about mental illness. It’s no different than any other non-communicable disease.”

As part of treating mental health the same as physical health, both speakers advocated first aid. Thigpen urged employers to give themselves, and their workers permission to take breaks to clear the mind. But that is just the first step. Both speakers are strong supporters of mental-health first-aid training that is becoming more widely available.

“But training is more than just checking a box. It has to be on-going, not just on World Mental Health Day or World Suicide Prevention Day. If that is all you are doing then you are doing a dis-service to your employees and to yourself!”

Beyond that Quigley suggested having a mental-health team, just as there would be first-aid kits and people trained in CPR. “It could be people in HR, or even in operations, just someone with a background in mental health.” &

Gregory DL Morris is an independent business journalist currently based in New York with 25 years’ experience in industry, energy, finance and transportation. He can be reached at [email protected].

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