Why every company must tackle mental health head-on

For many of us, this pandemic has transformed every aspect of our daily lives. We see it in the way we work—as our home also becomes our workplace and parents juggle kids and homework in between video calls. We feel it in the way we interact with friends and family—doing virtual celebrations and happy hours on Zoom. And we live it in our day-to-day—standing six feet apart in the grocery store with face masks securely on. 

The common thread connecting all of these changes is the impact on our mental health and well-being. In the last few months, we’ve heard a lot from medical experts, business leaders, celebrities, and athletes on how to take care of our mind and body through this crisis. But, what does that really mean when the lines are blurred between home and work life? 

The ability to work from home, once viewed as a perk, is now a double-edged sword. On one hand, there’s no commuting, and people are spending more time with family. However, the abrupt shift in work/life balance means that you never really turn off. For many people, the stress of work, coupled with household responsibilities and the general uncertainty of what lies ahead, has created a heightened level of anxiety and burnout. 

Most employers acknowledge the challenges of working from home with children. However, segments that often get ignored are singles and those living with roommates. This group faces its own set of challenges in dealing with feelings of isolation and loneliness or simply difficult living situations. A new Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that nearly half of people in the U.S. feel that the coronavirus crisis is harming their mental health. Now, more than ever, the topic of mental health and wellness has become top of mind for CEOs as they find ways to help employees navigate a new reality and the challenges that may come with it. Frankly, this is long overdue. 

Traditionally, the workplace has not been the most open environment for mental health dialogue. There is a misconception that mental health equals mental illness, but that is not always the case. Despite that, stigmas continue to persist and are a barrier to achieving workplace culture improvements. Employees feel a sense of shame and embarrassment to open up, fearing judgment and retaliation from bosses and peers, according to a 2006 survey. As CEOs and business leaders, we have the opportunity, and more importantly the responsibility, to transform that narrative.

Rewriting the story requires organizational leaders to be vocal—not just by talking the talk, but through concrete actions. Those actions trickle down and allow employees to feel safe engaging in candid dialogue. This cannot be a siloed effort that falls under one team. Every executive leader, department head, manager, and colleague has an important role to play in tackling the challenges and helping to normalize the conversation. The steps that organizations take now will go a long way in ensuring that employees are equipped with the tools and education needed to not only spark an open dialogue, but also take action.

Mental health and wellness initiatives aren’t just the right thing to do, it’s smart business. Untreated mental health conditions cost U.S. companies billions each year. The cost of ignoring mental health in the workplace can dramatically impact many aspects of the organization—from output to working relationships to overall culture. By ingraining awareness, education, and open dialogue, it creates an invaluable foundation for a healthy workplace that benefits everyone. When employees feel heard, seen, and supported, greater productivity results. 

Valuing employees by addressing their needs can only have positive outcomes. Employees have expressed a desire for companies to address mental health and wellness. In order to truly support colleagues in times of normalcy—and moreover in times of crisis—it is essential to create an environment that fosters a mental health conscious community. Organizations that have successfully committed to supporting wellness in the workplace have implemented various forms of employee resources such as support groups, educational programs, access to medically trained professionals, and meditation sessions. At Verizon Media, for instance, we implemented mandatory mental health training to all of our employees and offer 24/7 confidential crisis counseling. 

But we must do more. The urgency has never been greater.

Companies must prioritize mental health and wellness initiatives. No longer can it be a check-the-box effort. The global impact of COVID-19 has made mental health a broad societal issue with significant implications if left unattended. Everyone, especially those in positions of leadership, needs to collectively take action and be transparent on issues that affect employees’ mental well-being. By sparking that conversation, early and often, it will open the door to a new corporate culture that normalizes mental health. Employees will be equipped with the tools and education to tackle whatever lies ahead—working from home, juggling families, managing stress. And the post-coronavirus workforce will be even more resilient.

Guru Gowrappan is CEO of Verizon Media Group.

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