The cost of sweeping mental health under the corporate carpet

A protest against racism at a Starbucks in Philadelphia in 2018.
Employers like Starbucks have responded to the recent mental health crisis by offering benefits such as access to meditation apps.
Bastiaan Slabbers—NurPhoto/Getty Images

The stress, anxiety, and burnout that result from working amid the COVID-19 pandemic have been well documented. Undoubtedly, this has helped create a work environment fraught with challenges such as a frightening uptick in mental health issues and, yes, suicide.

There’s an evident health care crisis in America when it comes to mental health services, and with the pandemic upending everything, that crisis has become apparent in corporations.

There was a marked increase in suicides at work between 2018 and 2020, according to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Suicides most often occur within the ages of 24 to 64 years old, the working years. While this is concerning, it has also served to open the lines of communication and education about mental health in the workplace and suicide in general.

Recognizing the need for education

Employers need to realize they play a decisive role in mitigating employees’ thoughts of suicide and in mental health in general. Offering employees mental health care options both in and out of network is a stepping-stone to greater access, but it may not be enough.

Pre-COVID, it was accepted that employees could take time off from work if they had the flu. Corporations need to understand that mental illness can be just as dangerous (and even deadly) if left untreated. They need to allow for days off and sick days if someone is experiencing a mental health issue, without judgment and without holding that person’s job over his or her head.

It may not be apparent that someone is struggling. We need to educate leaders in recognizing the signs that someone is experiencing a mental health crisis or suicidal ideation. Families need education on everything from medication risks and side effects to proper firearm storage.

A year-round issue

Often, if someone is seriously considering suicide, they won’t talk about it. They’ll just do it. Recognizing mental health issues before they get to the point of suicidal tendencies is something corporations can work on in tandem with families and the community at large.

While there are times of the year that show a spike in the rate of suicide across the board, namely spring and early summer, suicidal tendencies can be a year-round issue. This means that companies need to get away from once-a-year “mental health awareness days” and concentrate on making mental health a part of their everyday operations.

Mental health professionals and HR experts contribute to steering a corporation towards successful stress and anxiety mitigation for their employees.

On the mental health side, there’s training that can be disseminated, mentors who can be assigned, and advisors who can be appointed to help ensure a successful mental health strategy for an organization. Bringing in outside assistance from professionals trained in organizational psychology can help a business build effective processes for recognizing and addressing mental health issues as they arise.

On the human resources side, a pledge to increase communication is paramount to meeting the needs of employees. Real-time feedback through pulse surveys provides insight into how employees may be handling stressful situations or workplace burnout. There needs to be a culture of transparency. Employees need to be made aware of the resources and tools available to them.

Where do corporations go from here?

As stated in a 2019 survey, “as U.S. workers continue to report high levels of stress and anxiety, employers are beginning to offer more benefits and solutions specifically targeted at increasing mental wellness.” However, some corporations have missed the mark when it comes to properly addressing the issue of suicide within their ranks.

In early 2020, a story surfaced about Starbucks employees’ concerns over shift cuts and understaffing, which had them scrambling at work to cover worker shortages and coming up short when it came to paying their bills. Starbucks employees took to social media and reported low morale, extreme stress, and burnout. Starbucks responded to the outcry for help not with increased mental health benefits or greater initiatives to intervene with struggling employees. Instead, it gave its employees access to a popular meditation app.

This response by one of the largest employers in the U.S. shows where there is still work to be done, with corporations understanding the effect workplace stress has on mental health and the rate of suicide.

Talk of suicide is still taboo, but corporations need to work together with health care professionals to remove stigmas and develop effective mitigation strategies and intervention processes.

Naveen Bhateja is the chief people officer of Medidata. Aimee Newon-Harris is a Chicago-based psychologist.

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