Business Leaders: Do Not Ignore The Mental Health Crisis Related To The COVID-19 Pandemic

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Tony Zambito

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Empty office buildings dot the map of the United States.  Once bustling communities adjacent to business parks are quiet.  Restaurants and services that once served the lunch crowds from office complexes are limited to takeout or have closed their doors for good.

Amidst all of this, many businesses are singing the praises of working from home.  With several large high-tech companies to keep a Work From Home policy in place until at least 2022.  Some, maybe forever.  Cropping up ubiquitously on social media platforms such as LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook are articles about everything virtual and remote.  Remote work, virtual selling, digital meetings, video meetings, and many more have worked their way into social media conversations.

CEOs and their teams across the country, as well as the globe, are focused on maintaining performance and productivity during the pandemic.  Finding the means for their employees to sustain productivity while working from home is often discussed.

What may be obscured in the drastic shift to working from home is the impact on mental health.  There is a growing mental health crisis emerging from the viral fires of the COVID-19 pandemic.  And when it comes to business, the history of sweeping mental health under the rug still exists.  A mindset of “mental health illness does not happen here; it happens in other places” is prevalent.  Causing many employees afflicted by mental illness to dare not mention for fear of appearing weak and losing their jobs. 

The pandemic is forcing thousands upon thousands of workers into isolation.  To work remotely.  Some with very little interaction with others – even digitally.  Including working under the strain of software tracking employee activity when they are online.  Just to make sure they are truly working. 

To believe that this is all good is to believe in a fallacy.  To fall for the glamorization of WFH is to fall down as a business leader in a crisis.

Numerous reports and figures indicate the severe impact on mental health the pandemic is having.  The Center for Disease Control stated, in a recent report, 41% of Americans have struggled with mental health issues like anxiety, depression, or substance abuse related to the Covid-19 pandemic.  Leaving no communities untouched, including business. 

A report by the American Psychological Association entitled Stress in America found that nearly two in three adults (65%) say the current amount of uncertainty in the world causes them stress. In addition, 60% say the number of issues America currently faces is overwhelming to them.

According to Mental Health America, the number of people seeking help for anxiety and depression increased by a scary 93 percent from January 2020 to September 2020.  Before the pandemic, it was estimated by Mental Health America that approximately 20% of adults living in the U.S. in 2017-2018 experienced mental health issues. The recent CDC report indicates this statistic has nearly doubled.

The outcome of such staggering statistics is the pandemic has caused many Americans to go without treatment.  Wait times for available treatments for substance abuse and mental health has stretched into weeks and even months. State and county budgets are being crippled. Unable to provide additional resources.  Practicing therapists are having to schedule appointments as far out as 2 to 3 months. 

Such an outcome not only affects the poor or impoverished communities but also working professionals.  The very ones who used to work in office complexes.  Professionals who do not do very well working in isolation. 

Working professionals who may have already been dealing with mild to moderate anxiety and depression are most susceptible to the slow slide leading to severe symptoms. Secretly suffering from loneliness and isolation and reverting back to substance abuse. Most, unfortunately, such outcomes are leading to a significant increase in suicidal thoughts.

For business leaders, these developments do not call for the simple response that all will be well when we get back to normal.  That the promise of the vaccines on the horizons will make this crisis go away.  No, all will not be gleeful and happy once again.  No, employees will no longer shout “rah-rah” at motivational speakers hired while deeply hurting inside.  The lasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will be felt for many years to come.  It is hard to predict how lasting and to what degree. 

If CEOs as business leaders are truly setting out to transform their organizations for a post-pandemic 21st century, it must do so by also addressing mental health.  The evolving mental health crisis is one that cannot be swept under the rug.  Nor addressed by organizing company retreats to build morale. 

In the business world, topics and talks about culture change abounds.  Collectively, business leaders need to create lasting culture change that involves mental health services.  Making it okay to seek out mental health services.  Making it okay for employees to talk about the impact of stress.  Making it okay for employees to share that they are not cut out for working from home.  That the stress and isolation will actually impede their abilities to perform and be productive. 

Business leaders pay attention to such crises.  Not just metrics.  Leadership involves being attentive to the health of your organization and your people.

You see, throughout the United States, we are reading too many obituaries of thirty-somethings or forty-somethings succumbing to the worst from anxiety and depression.  The taking of their own lives.  Including many promising professionals working from home.  Working in isolation.  No one noticing the slow slide towards suffering in silence.