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Companies are talking about employee mental health more than ever. In fact, according to Deloitte, 98% of surveyed CEOs said that employee mental health and well-being will continue to be a priority even after the pandemic is resolved.
Yet, in a recent McKinsey survey, while 65% of employers reported that they supported employee mental health well or very well, only 51% of employees agreed. Other studies report even wider gaps. These discrepancies are reflected in the low usage rates of traditional corporate mental health benefits and the ongoing sense of unaddressed mental health needs in the workforce suggested by broader data and anecdotes.
For a variety of reasons, the mental health support and resources offered by corporate America have not been adequately meeting the needs of the workforce. And as organizations look forward to coming out of the pandemic and getting "back to normal," we have to recognize that employees aren't going to bounce back at the flip of a switch.
If anything, employees will need more mental health support than ever. Between processing the isolation, trauma, and loss of the past year and preparing for a return to work in an uncertain future, employees — and their organizations — may need new tools and resources to guide them.
You are “here” — the well-being spectrum
Our mental health isn’t all or nothing. We may move along a spectrum between points of lower well-being where we feel strained to higher levels where we feel energized. We think of the overall population as falling on this well-being curve. At the upper end, a person is highly functional. At the lower end, they become less functional. At any given time, 5% of an organization’s population fall into the serious mental illness category according to pre-pandemic research from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, (SAMHSA).
In between, in the “massive middle,” most people (55%) languish, neither ill nor thriving.
The languishing are unable to fully participate in their lives. They drag down team and organizational performance and are at risk for sliding into more serious mental health issues in the future. The human cost is high. Organizations can help the languishing build their core psychological skills and move up the spectrum toward mental strength and function.
The consequences of more people languishing or suffering from mental illness or disorder won’t stop just because the pandemic ends. Research published in Nature considers this jump in the context of the post-9/11 PTSD and depression that affected New Yorkers. Fourteen years after the event, rates of PTSD and depression were still more than double that of the general population. No organization will be untouched by the broad stress and trauma suffered across the workforce this past year. The impact — in performance issues, interpersonal dynamics, and health and absentee costs — may be felt for years.
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Signs for hope — reframing corporate care
The positive news is that organizations today are recognizing the needs of those who are languishing or have more serious mental health issues, and many are willing to rethink how they address them.
Fortunately, there are several factors that organizations can influence to reduce suffering while also fostering greater well-being in the workforce. Addressable factors range from improving access and awareness to focusing on preventative measures such as improving well-being and developing the core psychological resources that sustain and improve mental health.
This reframing of the corporate role aligns with the findings of a 2018 summit on workplace mental health that employers’ obligation to employees “must first begin with primary prevention – focusing on reducing the onset of disease by addressing modifiable risk factors and bolstering protective factors in the workplace that are within the control of the employer.”
These changes, and greater focus on a culture of mental well-being, have the potential to shift the trajectory of mental health in the workplace.
What might a new tier of mental health support look like in the workplace? First, it is personalized and flexible. The pandemic has made clear that even circumstances as widely shared as a pandemic manifest very differently. Each individual faces unique obstacles and concerns. And each has their own preferences and abilities for how and when they get help and what type of resources will make a difference in their life. Second, mental health support has to center on human connection. But for a looming crisis of this size, the human connection has to be able to scale and flex to meet people where they are at any point in their journey.
What is the solution? We know that coaching is highly effective for helping move those who are languishing. This same level of human connection can also help those further down the spectrum gain awareness and knowledge of their condition and support taking next steps.
A new employer mental health response would make high-quality human support, combined with engaging, data-driven resources and services to build mental fitness, available to all. With an entire workforce engaged around mental fitness, it creates an environment where it feels safer to seek help and easier to triage those who need a higher level of care.
This type of support serves employees where they are and helps them overcome some of the “thought traps” that otherwise get in the way of seeking help. Like precision medicine, everyone in the organization can get the right type and “dosing” of mental health support to help them in the moment. By being very targeted with relevant resources that are immediately useful, people don’t feel overwhelmed, misunderstood, or stigmatized. With the benefit of accountability along the way, they get to experience some immediate benefits that will encourage continued engagement in their own mental health journey over time.
The real advantage comes from cultivating a culture where this ongoing engagement with our mental health and well-being is normal. We are all always in the process of improving or maintaining our best mental health.