Wellbeing and Mental Health

5 things we learned about mental health in the workplace in 2020

People practice social distancing inside an elevator prior to arriving to their work places at World Trade Center, after the government announced that private and state companies will reopen their offices after almost two months of lockdown amidst concerns about the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Colombo, Sri Lanka May 11, 2020.

Office workers in Colombo, Sri Lanka, practice social distancing in an elevator Image: REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Garen K. Staglin
Chairman and Co-Founder, One Mind
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Pandemic Preparedness and Response

  • The pandemic and its effects are exerting a huge toll on our mental health.
  • Employers were already taking steps to develop workplace mental health programmes before COVID-19 - but now the urgency is even greater.
  • Here are the top-5 learnings for employers from the One Mind at Work Global Forum, held earlier this year.

Each year in September, workplace mental health nonprofit One Mind at Work hosts an annual convening that gathers the most influential employers, innovators, advocates and researchers in workplace mental health for a programme of inspiring discourse on challenges, solutions, best practices and employee experience.

In 2020, as workforces around the world continue to endure novel challenges, more than 250 global leaders took part in a two-day virtual conference that focused on critical issues for employers. As a strategic partner of the World Economic Forum, we are sharing the top-five key learnings from the One Mind at Work Global Forum that employers can use to make a difference in coping with the mental health fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Employers are facing a moment of reckoning for employee wellbeing

The momentum behind workplace mental health programmes had been building before March 2020, but the 'perfect storm of stressors' that the pandemic brought – disconnected working environments, financial stress, and anxiety about health and safety – has changed the equation for employers as it relates to managing their employees’ mental health. As Susan Podlogar from MetLife explained, the stakes have risen, as employees report shockingly high rates of stress, burnout and depression that must be addressed in order for businesses to recover from the impact of the pandemic. Panelists at the Global Forum called out the need for employers to not only provide mental health resources through employee assistance programmes and employee resource groups, but also to consider how to proactively foster connection and remove the stigma around mental health.

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2. Diversity is key to a successful workplace mental health strategy

The protests against racial injustice that occurred throughout the summer invited deep scrutiny of diversity and inclusion practices across industries. Leaders are responsible for ensuring that their hiring practices are free of bias and that their workplace is inclusive. This means that all workers must feel represented by the ethos of the organization. One simple way of achieving this, as described by Microsoft Chairman John Thompson, is to listen with the intention of what employees expect from the organization in terms of diversity and inclusion. As Mr. Thompson said: “There is a reason we have two ears and one mouth.”

A parallel issue, and one that One Mind at Work has been committed to advancing, is the advantage of neurodiversity in the workplace (see our white paper here). Individuals with autism, dyslexia or ADHD can provide tremendous value but are often stigmatized or face barriers to hiring or career success due to their employer’s failure to understand how simple accommodations could unlock their potential.

3. The need for more evidence-based interventions

To seriously address the current mental health crisis there need to be more evidence-based interventions. At the same time that businesses are coming to understand the urgency of implementing workplace mental health programmes, many are also facing budget constraints or underperformance as a result of COVID-19. As with any smart business decision – and especially in challenging times – employers need to know that their investments are proven effective and backed by data. Researchers at the Global Forum emphasized the need for a larger ‘menu’ of evidence-based workplace mental health interventions – along with comprehensive training and implementation plans. Tele-psychiatric services and other digital therapies are filling a key gap in the availability of care. See our Employers Guide to Digital Tools and Solutions for Mental Health here.

The pandemic's impact on our mental health will be severe and persistent
The pandemic's impact on our mental health will be severe and persistent Image: One Mind At Work

4. Engaging the broader medical community and strengthening the mind-body connection

In the same way that more employers are fully appreciating their role in supporting employee mental health, encouraging the medical community to embrace comprehensive care can significantly improve and scale the delivery of mental healthcare. Dr. Victor Dzau, President of the National Academy of Medicine, and Dr. Vikram Patel of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, spoke on a panel with UCLA Chancellor Gene Block about the fragmentation of the medical system and the need for more holistic medical education and patient care. Similarly, Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, gave a keynote on emerging research that is proving how the connection between poor mental health and poor heart health is more than behavioural – it is biological and chemical, and therefore treatment should not be siloed.

5. The workplace as a source of mental wellbeing

Anthea Ong, a member of parliament in Singapore since 2018, life coach, and founder of WorkWell Leaders Workgroup, gave an inspiring closing keynote at the Global Forum and posed a provocative question to the members of the audience: can the workplace, in fact, be a source of positivity that energizes and fulfills employees to help them show up as the best version of themselves in other parts of their lives? Her question completely flipped the paradigm of the workplace as a source of stress and anxiety that must be constantly mitigated. Instead, can we reframe – and rebalance - our perception of work and its role in our lives? When leaders bring empathy, hope, trust and compassion to their organizations, Anthea asserts, this is possible.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

One Mind at Work is a global coalition of more than 100 corporations, government agencies, academic institutions and advocacy organizations that recognize the need to share and practice workplace mental health. Impacting more than 20 million employees and their dependents by following the principles of the One Mind at Work Charter, we have set a goal of improving 100 million lives by 2025. With the collaboration of the World Economic Forum, achieving this goal will be an important part of addressing the “second wave” of COVID-19-related anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress and suicidality that will last far beyond the widespread availability of a vaccine.

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