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How COVID-19 is accelerating workplace commitment to mental health & employee well-being

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 6 minute read

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 6 minute read

In 2017, nearly 20% of U.S. adults lived with mental illness, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health; and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 25% of the people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems mental health has worsened.

To shed more light on this, Thomson Reuters recently hosted a virtual panel discussion, Leader Panel: Mental Health in the Workplace, bringing together leaders from across the healthcare and legal industries to discuss the importance of promoting mental well-being in the workplace to build resilience and break down stigma. Axel Threlfall, Reuters’ Editor at Large, served as panel moderator.

Panelist Dr. Steve Miller, Chief Clinical Officer at Cigna, indicated that the use of anxiety, antidepressant, and sleep disorder medications increased more than 30% in the first months of the pandemic and continues to climb. Moreover, individual resilience is the lowest it has ever been, especially for people aged 18 to 23, according to another Cigna study.

On a positive note, the pandemic has advanced healthcare innovation in just six months, both in terms of virtual options and the adoption of technology, said Dr. Miller, adding that veterans, in an experiment conducted by the Veterans Administration, preferred speaking to an artificial intelligence-based avatar versus a live therapist, particularly in situations where they experienced an emotional breakdown during the session. These innovations also are hastening the provision of services in rural areas, where therapists are typically limited in availability.

Removing stigma of mental health

At the same time, panelists suggested we have a long way to go to de-stigmatize mental health, particularly in the workplace. Before the pandemic, seeking help for mental health was — and still is — viewed negatively within many cultures. However, the pandemic and the disruption it has caused in societies around the world has thrown mental health issues into the spotlight and jump-started conversations on the topic.

For example, Thomson Reuters designated October 9 as a paid company holiday as part of its commitment to employee well-being and to demonstrate how the company is taking the lead in this area during this difficult time, according another panelist, Thomson Reuters Chief People Officer Mary Alice Vuicic. The company selected that particular day in observance of World Mental Health Day on October 10.

You can view the full Thomson Reuters webinar, “Leader Panel: Mental Health in the Workplace”, here.

In addition to mental health holidays, professional associations and employers’ executive teams are working to embed employee well-being within the respective DNA of industries and organizations. Indeed, the legal sector was focused on mental health even before the pandemic hit. For example, the American Bar Association’s launched a campaign in 2018 to improve mental health and lawyer well-being; and the U.K. launched its Mindful Business Charter, also in 2018, with global signatories across corporate legal departments and law firms.

Panelist Lee Ranson, Co-CEO of Eversheds Sutherland, indicated that mental health has been a growing priority for his firm, which is now in the process of implementing a series of measures around the length and frequency of work meetings to better establish boundaries between work demands and employees’ personal lives.

Another key part of the formula to establish psychological safety is to ensure that employees feel comfortable taking risks, such as talking about mental health, without judgment or retribution. The aim is to create an environment to enable employees to bring their whole selves to work, said Thomson Reuters’ Vuicic. To do this, leaders are encouraged to share their own experiences dealing with stressful times through storytelling, effectively “giving permission” for people to open-up. The message that should come through is that it’s “okay not to be okay.”

Eversheds Sutherland’s Ranson agreed, noting that his firm’s leadership works to normalize well-being in conversations, placing it on meeting agendas and creating opportunities for people to share stories. In addition, the frequency of one-on-one check-ins between managers and team members has increased from quarterly to monthly.

Finally, the business case for employee well-being continues to gain support among those who have been traditionally resistant to the idea. According to Cigna’s Dr. Miller, the total cost of care to employers can be reduced when employee mental health is also addressed. Ranson added that the bottom-line matters when well-being is viewed as an investment. In the end, placing the discussion in business terms generally increases support among partners.

Stress of returning to the office

One of recurring stressors during the pandemic was the worry about returning to the office, which is only compounded by a lack of childcare options for employees who have children that are now in distance learning. Panelist Joyce Adeluwoye-Adams, Editor of Newsroom Diversity at Reuters, emphasized this critical point and stated how journalists, who already work in an intense, around-the-clock news cycle, have found it difficult to manage the mental pressure of demanding jobs while parenting.

Dr. Miller advised that employers must be flexible during the pandemic because all employees have different needs. Vuicic added that at the beginning of the pandemic, Thomson Reuters conducted weekly pulse surveys to learn what employees needed, and worked to deploy tools and resources in response.

Vuicic and Dr. Miller also said that a key part of the solution is to enable staff to return to the office on a voluntary basis. Team members who have less responsibilities for family, live alone, or are feeling increasingly isolated may want to return to the office sooner out of a desire to connect and develop their career. Indeed, increasing evidence shows that those who want to return to the office can do so safely by following strict protocols on masks, frequent handwashing, and effective social distancing, Dr. Miller notes.

While returning to work is not yet possible for some employees, manager flexibility on how, when, and where works gets done — and creating manager toolkits for helping individuals to set boundaries — is imperative. The pandemic is likely to have ongoing, dramatic impacts on the workplace through the first half of 2021, or until vaccinations can be delivered at-scale, worldwide.

Even when society and business emerge into a new version of whatever normal life will be, overall physical health and mental well-being will remain a hot topic for the C-suite, managers, and individuals. As Dr. Miller underscored, quoting Dr. Brock Chisholm, the first director general of the WHO: “Without mental health, there is no true physical health.”

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