I was recently in a meeting discussing economic advancement in the Corridor. The topic of barriers to business unsurprisingly came up as a hot topic. Several people in the room offered solid ideas about what businesses in this area are facing — one of the biggest being workforce shortages, despite the current pandemic and related record unemployment.
I offered the observation that workplace mental health will be a significant challenge in 2021 based on the trends of the past year combined with my background in mental healthcare. Others were quick to note concerns they have also seen in this area over the course of 2020 and into the new year. In our practice, the number of inquiries about how to address workplace mental health has increased a hundredfold in the last 12 months.
We’ve all heard that aftershocks are often worse than the original earthquake. Similarly, it is not uncommon for people to be a rock star during a crisis only to fall apart after it is over. When the pandemic struck, millions of people made huge shifts in their day-to-day life and tackled challenges like they had never experienced. The derecho compounded stress and required our whole community to come together. This is a testament to the resilience of people when facing difficulties.
During times like these it’s not uncommon to hear people say things like “I can’t afford to break down.” But what happens when the crisis is over, and they CAN afford to break down? For one, we can expect to see a surge in mental distress after the pandemic subsides. It’s the calm after the storm when people feel the effects of a crisis most intensely.
What does this mean for local business?
For starters, 1 in 5 employees is experiencing a diagnosable mental health disorder right now. Even more sobering, 50 percent of all people will be affected by a mental health disorder at least once during their lifetime. This level of distress is directly connected to absenteeism and decreased productivity, both of which have a significant impact on the bottom line. Now, for the good news. For every $1 invested in mental health, a company receives a return of $4 in benefits.
So, where should you start? There are four core efforts that I recommend:
- Increase awareness
- Promote wellness
- Train managers
- Talk openly and be direct
Some of the suggestions that go along with these efforts are common sense but are often overlooked because of other concerns that are more noticeable. It can actually be very helpful to provide mental health resources for employees so they know the company is thinking about mental health. For example, brochures on coping skills and stress management can show a willingness to engage in the improvement process.
Additionally, companies can provide listening sessions for workers to share their thoughts and feelings about the company’s culture around mental health. Often what comes out of these sessions is an increased desire to improve work-life balance, increase flexibility or autonomy, and encourage use of resources the company is already able to provide (like EAP benefits).
Key to all these efforts is the importance of prioritizing regularly engaging in open and honest conversation about mental health. This helps employees know that other people — including their coworkers and company leadership — are invested in their mental well-being.
Does it really make an impact?
Managers sometimes balk at these kinds of efforts, thinking the impact of poor mental health is less than the statistics show. It’s “easier” to attribute absenteeism and poor performance to negative personality traits or a lack of capability. However, the research is clear, a lot of what is viewed as negative behavior is being driven by mental health concerns. When offered support, those affected by mental health disorders can return to levels of performance that meet or exceed the expectations of their employers.
By investing the time and effort, companies can avoid the perils of having to frequently hire and train new people, which can significantly drain resources. The benefits of addressing workplace mental health directly are widespread and impactful. Not only does it benefit the company, but it will improve workplace culture by demonstrating concern and compassion for the individual.
Dr. Jacob Christenson, PhD, LMFT is CEO and founder of Covenant Family Solutions, a leading provider of mental and behavioral healthcare services based in Eastern Iowa. He has been practicing in the mental healthcare field for over 15 years and is a Clinical Fellow and Approved Supervisor in the Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
This article originally appeared in the Corridor Business Journal.