Today’s employees have their work cut out for them. The pandemic has impacted almost every aspect of their professional lives, and for many, it has taken a toll on their mental health as well.
In these times of isolation, furloughs, protests, racism, and
, it’s critical that companies support their people. These issues aren’t new, but the pandemic has put the conversation into sharper focus. And yet, Insider’s Human Impact of Business Transformation study found that 50% of employees don’t feel that mental health is sufficiently recognized in the workplace.
“As employers, as concerned parents, as leaders, as family members, I think we have a right and a responsibility to be concerned about the mental health of the people around us,” says Jim McCann, Founder and Executive Chairman of 1-800-Flowers.com.
To this end, his company recently created a “connection council” of mental health professionals to offer advice and elevate internal communications and initiatives. “Being able to connect with thoughtful professionals and bring their message to our community…it’s a bit of a gift,” says McCann. He adds that the single best cure for loneliness is “giving people the strength, the courage, to actively reach out.”
McCann and his brother Chris McCann, the company’s CEO, also started writing a weekly online letter to the 1-800-Flowers.com community — not to sell products, but to share their thoughts on current events. It’s now read by millions of people every week.
Stimgas remain when talking about mental health
Efforts like these help to diminish the stigma associated with talking about mental health in the workplace, which is still more widespread than it should be. “I’m really encouraged to see the uptick in people recognizing how important it is that we do have these conversations,” says David Roter, VP, Global Agency & Brand Partnerships at Snap. “I think that’s just a movement that’s happening across the board.”
As far as Snap is concerned, Roter is “beyond thrilled” that the company’s values are being reflected in the benefits it offers to support the emotional health of its employees. Roter emphasizes the importance of leading by example, whether that means letting your team know you’re taking a mental health walk, or informing them that you meditate twice daily.
Even therapy could be up for discussion. “Why not?” asks Roter. “Why can’t we get there? The more I open up, the more it helps the teams around us realize there are some behaviors to model after.”
Dr. Ashwin Vasan — physician, epidemiologist, and President & CEO of mental health and public health non-profit Fountain House — is very familiar with the importance of supporting mental health, and agrees there’s more work to be done.
“Make no mistake,” Vasan says, “even in the decades prior to COVID and particularly in the last six to eight years, we’ve seen a major spike in mental health issues…so we had a crisis coming into COVID, and this has simply exacerbated it. Now, how much is that penetrating into the public conversation? Not enough.”
Companies that partner with Fountain House can participate in its transitional employment programs for people living with mental illness in New York. It’s a chance for businesses to help the communities in which they’re based as they tackle mental health in their own workforces and raise awareness of this critical issue internally. Other benefits to organizations include adding cognitive diversity to their teams at a reduced recruitment and training cost.
“Companies are wanting to address this, not necessarily knowing how,” says Vasan. “But it’s becoming the lingua franca of leadership, because you’ve got to be able to address the mental health needs of your workforce.”
Culture plays a crucial role
Vasan’s advice for employers is to assess the support they’re currently giving and make those much-needed improvements. This includes ensuring that benefits packages offer a robust behavioral health component, and creating activities and opportunities that foster communication.
On the front end, it’s all about culture. Vasan maintains that companies must consider the tone they’re setting “at the highest levels” for how they talk about wellness, mental health, and self-care. These shouldn’t be treated as pejoratives, but rather as crucial components of productivity, efficiency, and an organization’s bottom line.
“I think that has to be part of people’s thinking, because otherwise it will never be taken as seriously as another part of workforce culture and performance,” Vasan says.
Effectively addressing the strain on the mental health of today’s workforce and putting your people first requires artful levels of both IQ and EQ, but the extra effort can have tangible benefits on the health of your customer community as well. “Invest in relationships,” advises McCann in the context of the pandemic. “I’m seizing upon this, trying to make lemonade out of these lemons we were dealt.”