The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the workplace is going to be far-reaching and long-lasting. We at diginomica have been documenting how companies are adapting, as well as speculating as to how the global health crisis may impact the ‘future of work'. However, one area that needs special attention now - and is often overlooked - is how the enterprise can help to counter the likely forthcoming mental health crisis.
We know from history that global shocks of this kind, particularly when looking at severe economic downturns, have a significant impact on peoples' mental health. And whilst the novel Coronavirus is a public health crisis first and foremost, it's becoming clearer by the day that the economic consequences of the virus are also going to be stark.
Research on the 2008 financial crisis indicates, for example, that the deep recession in countries led to increased levels of mental illness and suicide - with key stressors including job loss, financial difficulties, debt, loss of home and relationships stress.
But it's often sidelined that poor mental health amongst people has a direct impact on economic growth and productivity. A World Health Organisation (WHO) report highlights, for instance, that:
Conversely, while economic crises may have mental health effects, mental health problems have increasingly significant economic effects. The economic consequences of mental health problems - mainly in the form of lost productivity - are estimated to average 3-4% of gross national product in European Union (EU) countries.
Work changes increase the cognitive and emotional demands of work. Absenteeism and withdrawal from the labour market have increased because of stress, anxiety and depression-related disorders.
Thus mental health is an important economic factor. The shift from a manufacturing to a knowledge society emphasises even more the importance of mental health for sustaining productivity. Good population mental health contributes to economic productivity and prosperity, making it crucial for economic growth.
In addition to this, calculations by Oxford Economics estimate that the UK GDP in 2015 could have been over £25 billion higher than what it was if not for the economic consequences of mental health problems to individuals and businesses. A separate study found that the global economic cost of mental illness is expected to be more than $16 trillion over the next 20 years.
Despite knowing this, workplaces often don't prioritise in investing and supporting the mental health of employees. And yet we hear time and time again that people are an organisation's greatest asset. Whilst companies continue to invest in skills and culture and creative workspaces (which may positively impact mental health), having a mental health agenda at the board level is often lacking.
Some studies indicate that less than half of companies have a mental health strategy at all. However, the Enterprise Research Centre's work suggests that mental health should be a priority for companies looking to remain resilient in the wake of COVID-19. Its research states:
Research has shown that resilient businesses - those that are able to bounce back, strengthened, from adversity - often depend, among other things, on the individual resilience of their employees. Specific capabilities observed in employees which support firm-level resilience include cognitive capabilities such as the ability to assimilate new information quickly in order to make sense of new circumstances, and behavioural capabilities like tolerance for uncertainty, and the ability to co-operate and work within teams. Individual employees' capacities to regulate their own emotions, and to build social networks of trusted colleagues have also been found to contribute positively to their firms' ability to withstand shocks.
It follows that in order to bounce back from the current crisis, many firms will need the support and commitment of their employees, to negotiate the tricky times ahead.
Put a plan in place
The first point to highlight in this discussion is that there is still huge stigma surrounding mental health. It is probably the biggest barrier to making collective progress in working on mental health, much like we do physical health or workplace skills.
This is in part because technology hasn't yet got us to a place where we can ‘take a test' to measure our state of mental health and it is often ‘invisible'. It is also subject to a number of factors, such as environment, family history, experiences, our relationships, financial situation and physical health. Creating a culture in the enterprise where mental health is an open discussion and something to invest in will go some way to reducing this stigma for employees.
There isn't a blueprint for this, but some things to think about should include the following. I should preface this advice by saying that I am not a medical professional, nor a mental health expert, and companies should consult with trained professionals in implementing a plan. That being said, this advice should be a helpful starting point for companies that recognise the importance of mental health in the workplace:
Business leaders need to be prepared to make a business case for investing in employee mental health. Some of the studies already mentioned should be incentive enough, but unfortunately companies are more often than not motivated by money and boards will likely need to see the financial incentive to having a cogent mental health plan in place. Put that work in.
Create and promote a mental health strategy throughout the organisation - the strategy needs to be in black and white and available to all to see, for confidence.
Make mental health a board-level agenda and identify a board champion. The issue of mental health needs to be pushed at the highest levels of the business, in order for an open culture to flourish and for decisive action to be taken.
Identify what success in this area looks like. This could include everything from ensuring leaders understand how to create a positive mental health environment, a reduction in presenteeism and absenteeism and ensuring employees are being attentive to their needs.
Develop awareness of mental health across the organisation. Often people don't recognise when their own mental health is suffering and companies could help in the education process in identifying when intervention and support is needed. Documentation, campaigns, events and workshops are all worth investing in.
Continue to remove the stigma by encouraging people to speak openly about their mental health, including leaders that can help show that having an open dialogue doesn't lead to negative consequences.
Invest in training so that managers are able to, and feel comfortable, having conversations with employees about their mental health. This will help improve the disclosure process for people and help to remove fear that talking about mental health will lead to discrimination.
HR departments should consider their hiring processes, ensuring that people feel comfortable disclosing their mental health requirements and that any required adjustments for individuals are followed through on.
If working in a physical environment, seek guidance on how the workplace could be designed to encourage positive working experiences. Physical working conditions can have a direct impact on how people feel day to day. If employees are distributed and working digitally, ensure that flexibility for varied home conditions are in place and that employees still feel supported even though they are not physically present.
Provide in-house support for those that need it when facing mental health challenges. This could include referrals for professional help, in-house advice and access to support networks.
Monitor the mental health of employees through pulse checks and surveys. Report on progress and be open and transparent with the entire organisation about what's being done to provide support and actively promote initiatives.
Mental health can be an easy thing to ignore, particularly at work, and there is widespread misunderstanding about how much it affects all of us. The stigma is real and companies need to recognise that it's not just a ‘nice thing to do', but actually beneficial and good business to invest in it. The COVID-19 pandemic is going to shine a light on a whole range of mental health issues and companies that are at the forefront of supporting and investing in their people stand a better chance of weathering the storm.