May’s Mental Health Awareness Month Hit Differently; What Will Summer Bring?

Mental health and mental wellbeing are obvious points of consideration during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. What have historically been taboo discussion topics—both inside and outside the corporate world—are now easily looming as a true known second-order health crisis. It’s no surprise that our spirits and health are struggling—we’ve spent a large part of 2020 in isolation, with sickness and profound death. All of which has only been compounded by witnessing a debate over facts and science, grappling with large scale violence, racism and injustice, seeing 40 million U.S. jobs lost, experiencing work and life come together under one roof, seeing parents try to navigate home school, the entertainment, culinary and sports worlds coming to a halt and working through the monotony of video calls while simultaneously trying to lead a life that is filled with uncertain next steps.

We need to talk.

We need to talk openly.

We need to talk without fear or shame.

And we need to recognize that this is not a weakness, but actually an action of strength.

But whose responsibility is it to help us talk through and navigate this new reality? While it is something that many of us are being more vocal about, is it the responsibility of our friends and families? Our healthcare providers? Is it our employers and service providers? It can most certainly be a hybrid answer including all of the above, but as our friends and family carry their own burdens and healthcare professionals work tirelessly on the frontlines, it’s our employers that have the opportunity to step up.

A 2019 study commissioned by the American Heart Association CEO Roundtable, Mental Health: A Workforce Crisis, found that 45 million American adults (about one in five) have a mental health disorder. Untreated mental health conditions cost companies millions of dollars. A separate study done by the World Economic Forum and Harvard School of Public Health estimated that between 2011 and 2030, mental health problems could cost nations a total of $16.3 trillion in lost economic output. The COVID-19 pandemic alone is projected to result in at least $3.5 trillion in lost global economic output.

The good news is that so many employers are leading the way forward. Employers and executives are talking about mental health and showing concern for employees. Yet, we have to be careful not to turn mental health into the next greenwashing, it can’t be just about the bottom line, or corporate efficiency, its simply the right thing to do.

As we work with our clients to do the right thing in these strange times, we believe it starts with greater education and awareness, but action must closely follow. There are differences between mental health and mental wellbeing. And there is a wide array of mental health situations, each as unique as the next. We need to be careful not to equalize each other’s experiences, lumping all experiences together as one.

We need more group and one-on-one conversations that start with a caring ask versus a transactional one. Encouraging others to thoughtfully ask “How are you?” is the bare minimum. We need to learn how to ask more specific questions—questions that get to the uniqueness of an individual. How are you feeling today? What is frustrating you most today? What is feeling heavy for you lately? How is the news of X,Y,Z affecting you? Are you feeling increased stress? What can I do to relieve it?

Simply opening the door to a conversation incites permission to share. If group or one-on-one conversations aren’t working, try periodically issuing an anonymous company survey to understand how people are feeling. It’s better to get ahead of trends and understand the sentiment of your workforce so you can take action quickly.

It’s time to look, listen and learn from other companies who are doing it well. There’s also no shame in borrowing and adapting good ideas to meet the needs of your workforce and specific audience. Look to organizations that have already mobilized. There’s a growing number of support programs being developed for the workplace—“more than 200 companies—including Unilever, Starbucks and Zappos—have used Mental Health First Aid at Work, a four to eight-hour in-person course that teaches people how to talk to struggling colleagues and where to refer them.” Kenneth Cole recently launched the Mental Health Coalition, Unilever created a 14-day Mental Wellbeing Resilience Program, and Madwell is giving employees memberships to Talkspace, which offers 24/7 online, text and phone access to licensed therapists. Here at APCO, we’re bringing in a licensed clinical social worker to conduct a webinar for employees on “It’s Not Selfish, It’s Selfcare,” a session that will provide strategies for building up employee’s self-care reserve as well as how to say “no” without any guilt.

We must recognize that everyone’s situation is different. We’ve all experienced these last couple of months from our individual perspectives, and sometimes the global nature of this pandemic makes it seem like we are experiencing it the same way. While some of us may be working from home, our spouses or partners may be going to work every day under tough situations. We may be living in households marked by loss, both of life and employment. We may be living alone in small quarters without much human contact. But there are incredibly easy ways employers can support their workforce in ways that meet the needs on an individualized level:

In short,

  1. Communicate transparently, and often
    • Saying nothing, speaks louder than saying something
  2. Practice empathy, open the door
    • Ask thoughtful, genuine questions
  3. Keep a pulse
    • Check in with your employees, leverage surveys to be proactive versus reactive
  4. Listen and learn
    • Companies around the world are taking steps to address employee mental health. Learn from them and adapt their methods to meet your unique needs
  5. Provide resources
    • Employers have a responsibility to care for the wellness of the workforce; understand the programs and resources that are available for employees to use and if there are none, create them.

It’s almost trite to write about how difficult the last couple of months have been. We all know the toll that COVID-19 has taken on life, industries and employment. What we have to be more aware of is the unseen toll—from stress and anxiety to more acute forms of mental health.

We’re glad we marked May with an awareness month; let’s now mark June, July and every month and day to follow with actions.

This piece was coauthored by Dominique Scott.