What Your CEO is Reading: Mental Health – The Lurking Epidemic Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic

The global pandemic has not only brought forth new challenges, but it has magnified an existing health crisis – the number of people around the world suffering from mental health conditions and substance use disorders.

The global pandemic has not only brought forth new challenges, but it has magnified an existing health crisis – the number of people around the world suffering from mental health conditions and substance use disorders. Trademarks of the novel coronavirus include uncertainty, fear, rapid change in lifestyle, economic implications and increased isolation resulting from physical distancing measures required to reduce the spread of the virus. These factors exacerbate anxiety and depression. In fact, a recent article indicated that the pandemic could have a “profound” and “pervasive” impact on global mental health and suggested that research on mental health and brain science should be central to the response to the pandemic.

Why Your CEO May Care

The statistics are grim:

  • Depression is the leading cause of disability in the world.
  • In the U.K., mental health disorders are said to be the cause of 91 million missed workdays.
  • The loneliness epidemic is real.
    • A report from earlier this year suggested that 60% of American adults felt some degree of loneliness.
    • This is only increasing, according to a recent survey cited by Time, indicating that since lockdowns and stay-at-home orders were instated, roughly a third of American adults report feeling lonelier than usual.
  • Domestic violence is on the rise in many countries during the pandemic.
  • According to a poll by Kaiser Family Foundation, 45% of people say their mental health has been negatively affected by worry or stress related to the pandemic.

Even as some countries, communities and companies begin to relax certain restrictions, it will not be an immediate “return to normal” as we once knew it. For employees to remain productive, their well-being, including mental health concerns, needs to be a focus area for employers.

What Employers Can Do

Employers have a significant role to play in promoting positive mental health. Here are some practical actions you can take:

Increase Awareness – Combat misinformation about mental health conditions by educating your workforce on issues such as how common mental health conditions are, related signs and symptoms of mental health challenges and being careful about the language used when speaking to others. Acknowledge the increased anxiety during these times, especially for essential employees who have been required to continue to report to the worksite.

Address Stigma – Stigma is a problem in every corner of the world. Encourage employee testimonials, share public storytelling, and identify an executive sponsor within the company to be a visible leader who endorses the importance of the topic.

Improve Access – Review your health plans and benefit programs to ensure adequate coverage is provided. Implement and promote utilization of an employee assistance program (EAP). A foundational building block in any mental health strategy, EAPs can provide timely initial access. Encourage use of virtual solutions and telemedicine as well.

Encourage Outdoor Physical Activity – As gym routines are disrupted, encourage your employees to continue physical exercise through other methods. Online apps allow for in- home exercise sessions. Encourage employees to get outdoors for a walk or bike ride while practicing physical distancing. Natural light, fresh air and movement are important for both physical health and emotional well-being.

Stay Connected – Physical distancing does not necessarily mean social distancing. Encourage social connectedness to combat loneliness. Virtual gatherings and interactions ensure that colleagues can still connect on a personal level. Support leaders who may not be used to managing remote employees by suggesting a cadence for regular one-on-one meetings and the importance of checking in on how employees are doing personally in addition to how they are managing their work responsibilities.

Flexibility – Telecommuting is not new. The quest for work/life balance while navigating the double burden of work responsibilities and home responsibilities is not new either. However, much of everything else about the world we are now living in is new. Family situations vary. Many have the added responsibility of homeschooling children due to closed schools while telecommuting. Others may be part of a vulnerable population at increased risk for poor outcomes should they become infected. Some have been directly touched by the virus and are struggling with grief and bereavement. Flexibility is important. Allowing employees to adjust their schedule to the degree feasible to accommodate their new obligations will improve productivity.

While any time is the right time to promote and enhance your company’s mental health strategy and programs, there has never been a more important time to do so. As policymakers, companies, communities and individuals work to navigate the necessary actions to mitigate risk from the pandemic, let’s not forget the risk to our mental health.

May is Mental Health Month. Commit to taking action to support your employees’ mental health during these trying times.

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