Updated: Dec 2, 2020
Introduction A mental health crisis is looming. COVID-19 has put unprecedented strain on us. Evidence suggests that around 450 million people are suffering from anxiety and depression; whilst 75% of us are feeling more socially isolated, 67% are experiencing higher levels of stress, 57% are feeling more anxious, and 53% are dealing with greater emotional exhaustion. With UK employees also working 2.5 hours longer per day than they did before the government made the call to work from home – combined with uncertainty over the global health crisis showing no signs of relenting – the risk of burnout and mental illness is forecast to grow. If our world wasn’t set up to respond to mental health needs before COVID-19, it certainly isn’t now. We need movement on mental health; and we need to see mental health as foundational to our recovery from COVID-19. We cannot move forward and rebuild without it.
The Leadership Challenge Investing in our mental health is essential to returning to our full potential. And we’re not merely talking about monetary investment; we’re talking investment in our leadership and culture. It’s not just the right thing to do; it generates huge social returns for ourselves, our communities, and returns our businesses and our economies. It creates better physical health outcomes, stronger families and increases economic productivity. Healthy workforces are essential for maintaining economic competitiveness.
Business leaders have the power to create real change, through tackling workplace mental health issues and engaging in more than just the global conversation around mental health in the workplace. The moment calls for a new, innovative type of leadership: one in which leaders show strength through embracing vulnerability, and exercise wisdom through creating spaces in which their teams can be psychologically safe, innovative and open about their mental health – if they so choose.
Question So we ask: How can our leaders move beyond talking about mental health, and place it at the centre of their COVID-19 response and recovery?
Our Solution 3Pillars recommends the following four steps for leaders:
A common theme heard from those who battle mental health issues at work is a feeling of powerlessness. Fostering a sense of autonomy amongst employees should be a central goal for all business leaders. Employees feel autonomous when they are granted a meaningful role in decision-making, when their input is taken seriously, and when they have the latitude to exercise creativity and independent judgment.
Empowered employees are more engaged, productive, and loyal. Authentic leadership activates a culture of autonomy. Such leaders listen to, engage and trust their employees. They do not micromanage them. Instead, leaders provide parameters, tools, and resources for the project or task at hand and allow employees the freedom of choice—empowering them to determine how to achieve goals. In a culture that actively promotes a sense of autonomy, employees are less likely to fall prey to feelings of powerlessness that spiral into depression and anxiety.
Work-life balance is an overrated concept. Most of us are seeking work-life integration. Work and life do not compete with one another. They are part of an integrated whole. Ideally, we must embody the same level of enthusiasm, engagement, and energy across all areas of our life. One of many ways for employers to support their employees is to offer a flexible work policy so that they are better able to manage all aspects of their life with less pressure.
Employers who understand this truth will have an advantage in attracting and retaining top talent. They will also have healthier employees who feel the freedom to meet personal and professional needs without pitting one against the other.
Flexibility in the modern workplace takes many forms. For some, it is the freedom to work flexible hours. For others, it is the ability to work remotely for part of the week. The bottom line is that leaders understand it is not important when and where the work gets done. Employees who are granted the freedom to perform on their terms will pay high dividends on that investment.
After a major two-year study of team performance, Google found that “psychological safety” was by far the most important factor in the formation of effective, cohesive teams. The study defined this safety as a quality that allows team members to “feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of one another.”
Vulnerability may not immediately stand out as a strategy of a Fortune 500 company. However, risk-taking is imperative to innovation in today’s world and it requires vulnerability. Interestingly, mental illness takes an exceptionally high toll on knowledge workers whose mental acuity and creativity are essential job requirements. Sharing and collaborating on ideas can be risky business. Only teams that cultivate authentic trust amongst themselves will benefit from the free flow of innovative ideas.
In teams with a solid foundation of trust, individuals will feel safe and comfortable coming forward with personal struggles that might impact their work. Investing in trust pays off in higher performance and improved mental health.
Resilience flourishes in organisations that invest in the well-being of their employees. Uncovering the needs, desires, and goals of your employees and organisation is crucial in tailoring an effective employee wellness strategy. Stress management and mindfulness workshops, resilience training, and coaching are vital offerings for your employees. Attending to the mind-body connection is also critical, as depression and anxiety often first find a home in the body. Conversely, a healthy body is more resilient in the face of unexpected stress.
Our Conclusion One thing is for sure – the future of mental health is up to us. There could be at least 60 million fewer cases of anxiety and depression between now and 2030 if we invest in mental health. People could gain 25 million healthy life years, and 200,000 deaths could be avoided. Countless benefits to individuals, families, communities, businesses and our world could be gained if we invest in everyone, everywhere, to give people the opportunity to reach their full potential.
We can achieve this future by investing in our own mental health, supporting the mental health of those around us and by demanding that our leaders invest in mental health across the world. COVID-19 gives us a once in a lifetime opportunity to move mental health forward. By investing now and building mental health into all COVID-19 response and recovery plans, we can build a better working world.