Editor’s Note: This op-ed is a collaboration between the mental health doctors in the United States from the National Network of Depression Centers, and Project Healthy Minds, a new millennial-driven mental health nonprofit startup focused on destigmatizing mental illness, using technology to expand access to mental health solutions, and engaging employers to tackle the mental health crisis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are the authors’ own.
The global pandemic sparked a corporate work-from-home revolution — a new opportunity for many American workers who for decades have been tethered to offices, daily commutes and in-person meetings.
But as clinicians and mental health advocates, it’s imperative that we sound the alarm: As we enter a sixth straight month of remote work, a sprawling mental health crisis is beginning to arise among the US workforce.
Nearly four in 10 Americans say the “coronavirus is having a serious impact on their mental health.” Many people working from home are battling social isolation and losing any sense of work-life balance. Working parents are struggling under the weight of being present at their jobs while caring for and home-schooling children. These struggles are compounded by the fact that, at least prior to the pandemic, workers rarely — if ever — sought help from their employer when they were suffering. More than half of employees responded in a 2019 survey that they did not talk to anyone at work about their mental health in the last year.
We are paying for the cost of our inaction in both lives and dollars. Globally, suicide has become the second leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 29. Even before this pandemic, depression and anxiety were costing the global economy $1 trillion each year.
It’s time for business leaders to recognize that improving mental health for employees is an important investment that demonstrates a commitment to stakeholder capitalism and could help combat another public health crisis. Well-planned workplace mental wellness programs produce more productive workforces and deliver a positive return on investment. As the World Health Organization has noted, “For every $1 put into scaled up treatment for common mental disorders, there is a return of $4 in improved health and productivity.”
We’re urging every business to step up and address their employees’ serious mental health needs during this unusual moment by taking a multi-faceted approach.
Openly and consistently talk about mental health
One of the most corrosive elements of our mental health crisis is suffering in silence. Oftentimes, the stigma is more acute in the workplace than it is outside of it. A 2019 survey revealed that 81% of workers said the stigma associated with mental health prevents them from seeking treatment. That’s why leaders need to model the behavior by opening up in public settings — leveraging virtual company town halls, for instance — to create a structure that permits employees to open up about their own mental health struggles.
Train managers on mental health
In this new world, managers need to go through specialized training so they know when an employee is struggling with a mental health condition — especially while teams are working remotely and the signals may be less obvious. That means implementing mandatory, company-wide mental health first aid training for managers so that they are well-equipped to proactively identify issues before they get worse.
Ditch the “one-size-fits-all” approach
The mental health needs of employees are diverse. The needs of a young employee who has recently graduated and lives in a small, urban apartment can be very different than that of a female executive raising and educating children while running a large team.
For too long, companies have solely relied on employee assistance programs (EAPs) — essentially an outsourced hotline where employees can get help with legal problems, child care support, mental health services and more — to “check the box” when it comes to providing mental health services to employees. However, EAPs are rarely used — multiple studies have found that fewer than 10% of employees are taking advantage of them.
Once they’ve gone through formal training, managers should reach out to their team members individually to ask about their mental health and what they may need to establish new work-life boundaries during the pandemic, which will help them avoid burnout.
Redesign employee benefits to support mental health
Our Covid-related work and lifestyle changes aren’t going away in the near term. This is a marathon, compounded by uncertainty. Virtual programs can help employees handle stress and emotional symptoms more effectively by teaching mindfulness and relaxation techniques, and encouraging healthful behaviors, like getting adequate sleep, eating well and exercising regularly.
Wellness programs help keep people functioning at their best. Programs that support time off for treatment with a plan to return to work have proven benefits for avoiding ‘presenteeism’ — when an employee is technically not absent from work, but is less productive. Flexibility to attend weekly therapy sessions or more intensive hospital treatment programs allows employees to focus on getting back to full function. Flexible leave also prevents employees from leaving the company to seek treatment, which can require expensive retraining for skilled roles.
Show that your commitment to mental health is authentic
World Mental Health Day is on October 10. One of the best ways employers can highlight mental health is by celebrating it. Companies should use their brand platform to publicly tell employee stories of overcoming mental health challenges and detail how the company provided support. Employees and prospective talent look to the public positions that companies take on social issues and they make decisions based on that analysis.
To overcome the decades of skepticism, stigma and shame that employees feel about talking about their mental health, management needs to demonstrate an authentic, consistent commitment. Now is the time for employers to confront this urgent health crisis that is impacting their employees. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it is also the smart business decision.
Frank Verloin deGruy III, MD, MSFM, chair of Family Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine
J. Raymond DePaulo, Jr., MD, co-director of the Mood Disorders Center at Johns Hopkins Medicine and chair of the National Network of Depression Centers
Mark Frye, MD, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Psychology and director at Mayo Clinic Depression Center
John F. Greden, MD, founder and director of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Depression Center
Dane Larsen, executive director of the National Network of Depression Centers
James Potash, MD, MPH, department director and Psychiatrist-in-Chief at Johns Hopkins Medicine
Mark Hyman Rapaport, MD, chair of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University
Scott L. Rauch, MD, president and Psychiatrist-in-Chief at McLean Hospital, Harvard Medical School
Phillip Schermer, founder and CEO of Project Healthy Minds
David Silbersweig, MD, chair of Psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School
Marisa Toups, MD, assistant professor of Psychiatry at Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin
Sandra J. Weiss, PhD, DNSc, FAAN, co-director of The University of California at San Francisco Depression Center
Jesse H. Wright, MD, PhD, chair of Outpatient Psychiatry and director at The University of Louisville Depression Center