“…I felt like the world is falling apart. While I sat there on my desk with a coffee mug in my hand, I could see my surroundings running in fast forward motion and I was beyond confused with what was happening. I wanted to scream hard but no words came out and soon enough, another customer file was kept at my desk to work on. It is becoming a task to wake up in the morning every day. Heavy breaths, heart pounding to 100 miles an hour, heavy sweating, feeling choked have become more frequent. My friends tell me it is a phase and my colleagues laugh at me for being too sensitive.”
Belonging to the discipline of psychology, these conversations have become a part of my daily interaction with my friends. So, I decided to do my own research to understand the gravity of the situation. What I found did not surprise me. About 971 million are globally impacted by some mental disorders, making mental illness share about 13% of the global burden of disease and killing about one person every 40 seconds.1
What we see in the media today is 182,727 coronavirus cases across the world and counting, which is no doubt equally alarming.2 But I wonder why we don’t equally focus on the increasing number of mental health cases that are slowly affecting how we not just react to our work but also a virus outbreak like this one.
But wait, why should you care?
Quoting WHO’s stats, depression and anxiety, the two most common mental disorders, are costing the global economy about a trillion US dollars, every year. That’s right! 200 million work days are lost annually incurring a cost up to $300 billion annually in US business houses alone.2 71% In fact, American Psychological Association (APA) posits that work impairment and loss caused by mental illnesses like depression is more than any other chronic health conditions like heart diseases, diabetes or hypertension. According to a survey conducted by American Heart association, about 76% (i.e., three in four) employees indicate that they have battled or are battling with at least one mental health related issue in the past.3
While the issue is mostly brushed under the rug due to lack of clarity of diagnosable symptoms and stigmas associated, it is time we pay this glaring issue its due attention before we land ourselves in yet another world epidemic that we have no clue how to deal with.
In light of the coronavirus outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) highlights how fear and anxiety can overwhelm both adults and children. Coping in the right manner with friends, colleagues, families and building stronger communities are the need of the hour.4 As an organization, you can note that WHO estimates for every $1 you put in for mental wellness, you get a return as high as $4 in terms of reduction in absenteeism and turnover, and improved health and productivity.5
Coronavirus or not, here are 3 simple ways you can effectively create a culture that fosters mental well-being at work.
#1 Declare a war on stigmas associated with mental health
Stigmatizing mental health is the biggest disservice that we do as a colleague, supervisor or friend. It is important to understand that none of us are immune to mental health related problems. In fact, WHO stats suggest that one in four individuals will suffer some sort of mental health related problem at some point in their lives. Since work constitutes one of the most important part of an individual’s life, tell your employees that “it is okay to not be okay”.
- Provide employees with a platform to encourage open conversations about struggles with mental health among colleagues and supervisors.
- Communicate widely issues that may impact the workplace. Spread awareness about the importance of mental and physical wellness.
- Educate employees with the detrimental impact of poor mental health on their physical health and overall well-being.
Phenomenal success of ‘This is me’ campaign initiated by Barclays, provides a perfect evidence of de-stigmatization of mental illness. The campaign has reached over 400,000 employees in over 115 organizations a platform to come forward and share their story in a safe space.6
#2 Empower your employees and be their pillar of strength
Initiate sensitivity training for employees so that they understand how to deal with their colleagues, friends and family who are in distress. Think of the many around us already panicking about a virus outbreak rather than focusing on taking cautionary measures. And most of us are not really aware of how to react to someone in distress and often end up either dismissing their feelings or at best showing sympathy that may not translate to the receiver. Enabling your employees with basic sensitivity training will help you create a mental health friendly work culture where your employees can feel safe to talk about their feelings without the risk of being judged or misunderstood. While not everyone needs to be a professional therapist, but with awareness and adequate knowledge employees can identify early warning signs in self, colleagues, friends and family to deal with the issue in the right time.
One of the largest business consulting firms, Ernst and Young started out with a simple question “r u ok?” in 2016 which is being recognized and appreciated worldwide. They realize that mental well-being does not exist in isolation and has thus taken an initiative to create a culture wherein employees are connected with several e-resources that spread awareness, peers called as ‘employee champions’ and in-house consultants, to assure that they have someone to turn to in case of mental distress.7
#3 Integrate mental wellness as policies in your work culture
Introduce wellness policies that covers ways in which your employees to deal with the most recent factors causing stress and anxiety. Do a need analysis and basis employee feedback inculcate practical skills such as time management, developing emotional intelligence to facilitate employee well-being. For instance, a financial bank in Canada, gives employees a healthWise health passport, giving them access to a holistic package of maintaining physical and mental well-being.
Similarly, Johnson and Johnson use all the above techniques, combining them into one holistic employee assistance program with senior leaders dealing with stigmas by coming out with their stories, building a compassionate work culture by encouraging open and honest communication and using technology to create awareness and give employees resources to reach out to.8
Employee assistance programs have proved to be effective in dealing with mental health related issues and companies of different sizes have proactively modelled mental health friendly workplace for others to take inspiration from.
As I keep learning on how we can cope with both our mental and physical health in a world as connected and disconnected as this one, I realize trust is essential in the communities we build. Be it at work or home, it’s critical we unify and strengthen our bonds more than ever.