This article, originally published in February 2022, is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
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About a decade ago, I participated in an internal TEDx programme and shared with Johnson & Johnson (J&J) colleagues our family’s story about my daughter’s struggle with an eating disorder. My hope was that, by telling my story, it would encourage others suffering in the shadows to do the same. After the event, there were more than 400 emails in my inbox from co-workers who had similar stories about mental health challenges and wanted to help.
The experience was an eye-opener for me then. Nearly a decade later, COVID-19 has heightened awareness and demand for a focus on mental health in the workplace and brought increased momentum for employers to do more. Now is the time to harness that momentum to ensure that we, as employers, provide a workplace where mental healthcare challenges are discussed openly and with respect, and where employees have access to the help they need.
It is our responsibility to provide a safe workplace for employees to share their stories and, by doing so, eliminate stigma around mental health.
Significant advances have been made in the treatment of serious mental illnesses, but if these innovations are not accessible to everyone who needs them—because of stigma and problems with a fragmented mental healthcare system—we, as employers, must do more. Statistics show that one in five employees has a diagnosable mental health condition and two out of four cares for a loved one with mental health challenges. These statistics make mental healthcare a priority for all employers.
Within companies, three-quarters of the current workforce is suffering in silence. It is a serious problem hiding in plain sight—characterised by absenteeism and presenteeism—which is not good for their mental health, their creativity or their organisation.
In universities, the next generation of prospective employees are talking openly about mental health challenges. Students are much more open about this than any generation in history; they want to be able to bring their authentic selves to work. These future employees do not want to enter the workforce only to go back into the closet.
Employers will lose the talent race if they do not address the demands of their current and future employees. It is our responsibility to provide a safe workplace for employees to share their stories and, by doing so, eliminate stigma around mental health.
Read more: Recognising Responsibility: How employers can help solve the global mental health crisis by Alison Unsted, UK CEO, City Mental Health Alliance
Working together we can make a difference, providing access to new healthcare models and new science to deliver mental healthcare. One important step that employers can take is to form Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) for those who live with mental illness, either as a patient themselves or as a caregiver. Employers—whether they are government agencies, industry or large nonprofits—can help mobilise ERGs and provide support within the workplace and to communities and advocacy groups.
But this is only the beginning. We have a long way to go to fix the mental healthcare system: the solution is to bring together its many fragments. We have dedicated and talented people working hard in this space, but they need to come together with an integrated approach across government, public and private industry, and the nonprofit sector. Working together, we can create a market demand to change the system so mental health is integrated into primary healthcare—and is not an afterthought.
The state of mental health is a global crisis: no country is exempt, no type of employer is exempt.
For example, in Singapore, mental healthcare was not covered in J&J’s healthcare packages for employees. We worked with a coalition of other employers who have their Asia Pacific headquarters in Singapore to create a market demand for healthcare coverage packages that included mental health. We are now going through this process on a global basis to ensure that employees have access to providers in their network. Such issues are brought to the surface only when employees feel safe to discuss them and realise that they can shape these markets.
No matter whether we work in the public or the private sector, we also need to support the advance of science. We’ve seen the power of science in COVID-19, in cancer and in HIV. But we have not seen comparable global investment in mental health. To reduce stigma and change healthcare systems, the science must be fully activated. We need better approaches in pharmaceutical treatments, counseling, medical devices and digital health technologies.
The state of mental health is a global crisis: no country is exempt, no type of employer is exempt. We must all learn to talk about this issue openly, honestly and with humility and empathy. We can—and must—put programmes and policies in place and work together to influence change for the well-being of our employees and our organisations.
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