There’s a link between mental health and keeping workers from quitting

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If there is one thing organizations have learned during the pandemic, it is that the mental health and wellness of their employees is not something that needs to be addressed for a month or one week out of the year.

The nation may celebrate October as Mental Health Awareness Month, but it’s an issue that requires constant attention, resources and commitment, experts say.

And for good reason. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey earlier this year found that nearly half of Americans report the pandemic is hurting their mental health. They reported fear of getting sick and worrying about what it would be like to return to the workplace. For those who have already returned to the office, fatigue is on the rise, with feelings of emotional exhaustion and lethargy.

Over the past year and a half, companies have gone uphill. Many employees offer a large number of behavioral health options including access to therapists, training, wellness and meditation apps, mental health leave, paid time off, and flexible schedules. While these presentations can be beneficial, they stop addressing the problem if managers are not involved in how they work.

“It’s not enough just to deliver software,” says Jimmy Etheredge, North America CEO at professional services firm Accenture. “The onus is on leaders to lead by example to show people that it is okay to be their true selves.”

As employees reset the role work plays in their lives, they are realizing that pre-pandemic definitions of success, engagement, and commitment may not sound right. The wave of resignations that is occurring is largely led by workers who want more of their lives and jobs after suffering the losses caused by Covid-19.

Companies that provide employees with the resources to take care of their emotional health while putting in place protective barriers that prevent burnout from occurring in the first place are the top performers.

It is not enough just to provide software. The onus is on leaders to lead by example to show people that it is okay to be their true selves.

Jimmy Etheredge, CEO of North America, Accenture

Jennifer Moss, author of The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It, says leaders don’t need to be healthcare experts. But they need to know where these mental health experts are in their companies and how employees can reach them. At a CNBC Workforce Executive Board event, Moss said managers are “channels.” They need to “be able to point people in the right direction”.

Define issues

Being able to do this requires that companies first understand the different behavioral health issues they deal with. There are three “prongs” to consider, says Dr. Robert Quigley, global medical director at International SOS, a health services company. The first is cause and effect between Covid-19 infection and behavioral health issues.

He points to recent Lancet research showing a link between the virus and neurological symptoms including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and insomnia, which can affect work performance. Companies must also address how people deal with fear and misinformation. He says having a platform that provides accurate and up-to-date information about the virus is crucial.

Finally, companies need to realize that many employees have been dealing with behavioral health issues for years. The pandemic may have exacerbated them, but it is also allowing organizations to de-stigmatize these cases and help employees access the care they need.

“This is why I like to call it emotional health rather than mental health,” Dr. Quigley says. “It makes it easier for people to discuss, yet still includes things like stress, anxiety and depression that a lot of people are facing right now.”

Helping employees understand that it is now okay to not be unwell is perhaps one of the biggest benefits of this focus on emotional health. Etheredge says he became a mental health ally through a training program with the company’s mental health and wellness employee resource group. He asked his entire leadership team to do the same.

The program teaches how to recognize and have open conversations about mental health to connect those in need with appropriate support. Since the pandemic began, Etheridge says the company has expanded the program to every country in which it operates and now has more than 8,500 trained allies across the company.

“The only bright side to the pandemic is that mental health is finally starting to move out of the shadows and into the public discourse,” he says. “Companies have realized that neglecting mental health is no longer an option and the attention and resources given to addressing it are here to stay.”

To join the CNBC Workforce Executive Board, apply at cnbccouncils.com/wec.

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