5 ways for leaders to support mental health
We’ve all been talking about it, but not enough.
Talk about it
I lost another friend to suicide recently. This friend’s struggles with depression, public failure, and the stress of being a high-profile leader were all indicative of him being a high risk person. I keep asking myself what could have, and should have, been done better. Maybe he’d still be here if things were different.
“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” ― C.S. Lewis
Even though it’s been a few months, I’m still raw from my friend’s loss, but the topic of mental health has been weighing heavy on my heart for a long time. Then I read the following statistic in a Forbes article that shocked me into thinking even more deeply about my leadership role and the critical importance of top-down advocacy for mental health.
“A 2019 report from Mind Share Partners found that 80% of workers with a mental health condition said that ‘shame and stigma prevent them from seeking treatment’ — and that just 37% see their company’s leaders as ‘advocates for mental health at work.’”
We can’t make executive decisions, create company policy or whisper about mental health issues behind closed doors. It’s up to us to reverse these numbers by being leaders who fearlessly speak up about the importance of mental health.
Latest statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness show that 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year with 1 in 25 experience serious mental illness each year. These numbers are skyrocketing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, now 1 in 2 Americans report mental health issues due to coronavirus. One federal emergency hotline for people in emotional distress registered a more than 1,000 percent increasein April compared with the same time last year.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that physical illness is talked about and treated differently than mental illness. We cheer on a coworker in their fight against cancer, but are we cheering as loudly, or even at all, for the coworker who is daily battling near-debilitating anxiety? Do we even know they are struggling? If we’re honest, probably not. That needs to change, and it starts with us. As leaders, we have the responsibility to remove the stigma and initiate healthy dialogue around mental health issues.
The numbers don’t lie. To help move the needle, we must first have a true understanding of where we are when it comes to mental health issues. Start by looking at the numbers–I’ll give you some below. The statistics don’t lie; and coronavirus has revealed the reality that as a nation, we are severely under-prepared to serve the burgeoning mental health crisis.
Mental health expert Stephen W. Smith says, “We need to accept that mental illness, like any other chronic illness, will become debilitating if it is left unaddressed…To ignore the symptoms will only lead to more self-destructive behaviors and ultimately to a greater downturn in workplace productivity.”
Know the trends
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, this was our reality.
- Depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $1 trillion each year in lost productivity.
- Depression causes more lost workdays and impairment than arthritis, asthma, back pain, or diabetes.
- Suicides have increased 31% since 2001 making it the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.
- Mental health conditions impact 1 in 5 adults – nearly 47 million Americans.
- Mental health disorders impact 1 in 6 youth aged 6-17 each year in the U.S.
- The number of youth experiencing a major depressive episode (MDE) increased by 99,000 from last years’ dataset.
- Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for people ages 10-34.
The profound psychological impact of the global pandemic–the disastrous magnitude of which is greater than any other event in the history of the world– will persist for months and years to come. Knowing this, we must do everything in our power to mitigate the ramifications for our workforce.
Analyze and anticipate
Our organization hires young. We know that each successively younger generation–especially those who have experienced the COVID-19 crisis–is growing up in higher trauma-inducing situations than previous generations. They are more susceptible to struggling on a greater level with anxiety and depression. Increased mental health issues decrease productivity.
We must think deeply about how to invest in preventative measures now rather than scramble to react when our workforce reaches a tipping point. And with 1 in 2reporting mental health struggles due to coronavirus, we’re dangerously close to the precipice of disaster.
Take action now
The W.H.O. estimates that every $1 invested into “treatment for common mental disorders” will return $4 in improved health and productivity. One thing we have done as an organization is to commit to selecting health insurance plans that provide the same amount of mental health care as it does physical health care.
To get ahead of the trends, we are also discussing proactive measures, rather than just reactive, we can take to help boost the mental health of our staff. For example, we subsidize and promote fitness programs for better physical health of our staff to prevent major health issues later on down the line.
Culture change starts at the top, so we are working to create shared definitions and dissolve stigma around mental health issues. We have trained and empowered our HR department and managers on mental health awareness and created action plans that honor anonymity and compassion as well as compliance. We offer mental health screening and have made it easy for employees to access benefits and care without fear of losing their reputation or job. We are actively pursuing additional programs that promote mental health and prevent major mental episodes and breakdowns. While there are still unknowns, it’s critical to take bold steps into uncharted territory for both the physical and mental fitness of our most valuable asset– people.