This article is part of a series in which experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address for the OECD 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.
People need to feel well to perform well. The workplace has a unique opportunity to not only provide education and access to support, but also to enhance the mental health of workers. Everybody should be coming to work, looking forward to doing their job because it has the right level of purpose, the right level of challenge and the right level of support. This is not just the right thing to do—it is a strategic business imperative.
Before the pandemic, the World Health Organisation estimated that anxiety and depression alone cost the global economy over USD 1 trillion every year in lost productivity. But, more importantly, the human cost is immeasurable. Many people reading this piece will know of those who have been very unwell or died by suicide, and will have witnessed the impact this has on families and wider communities. Since 2020, there has been a surge in people experiencing poor mental health because of COVID-19, the associated restrictions and economic impact. Tragically, we know that 93% of countries have halted or stopped mental health services as result of pandemic, which means while demand has never been higher, there is even less support than before.
At the City Mental Health Alliance (CMHA), we believe that employers have a key role in helping to tackle this crisis. Across many industries, people are experiencing symptoms of mental ill health, and before COVID conservative estimates suggested 15% of people at work were experiencing mental ill health at any one time. I suspect that this is now much worse. The mental health of young people in particular has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and in CMHA research 47% of young professionals in the United Kingdom said that one of the most “important things” they would look for in a future employer is whether it would prioritise their mental health.
The good news is that more businesses are starting to recognise this responsibility. A CMHA survey of over 1,000 United Kingdom employees revealed that nearly half felt that their employer had supported their mental health during the pandemic. Examples of action include giving employees, and in some cases employees’ families, access to confidential counselling. There are now more Mental Health First Aiders and/or mental health champions in businesses, trained to spot warning signs, provide initial support and signpost to professional help if needed. There have been initiatives to challenge stigma through story sharing and awareness campaigns. The CMHA’s training service has also seen an increase in requests for mental health awareness training for line managers, to give them the confidence to proactively manage and support the well-being of their teams.
Read more Fitter Minds, Fitter Jobs: The nexus between mental health, skills and employment by Anthony Gooch, Director, OECD Forum, OECD
Our research shows that business also has a unique opportunity to open dialogue on mental health, educate and improve access to support in communities where stigma is high. In the CMHA’s Mental Health and Race at Work report, around half of all different ethnicities said they would be likely to use the support offered by their organisation. Encouragingly, this includes South Asian and East Asian employees who report a higher level of mental health stigma due to cultural and family reasons. This suggests that the workplace can step in to play a key role in supporting those people who may be less likely to ask for mental health support from within their community.
At the CMHA, the vision that we share with our members is that workplaces—from every industry and in every country—will protect, support and create positive mental health for their people. For businesses looking for guidance on how to do this, the CMHA’s Global Thriving at Work Framework brings together the experience and recommendations of workplace mental health experts and business leaders.
If all businesses across the world took action, mental health stigma would be reduced significantly and access to and utilisation of early intervention support would be improved. Imagine how a business could flourish when its people stay healthy and thrive; imagine the impact on communities, societies and economies if people had better awareness and felt safe to have open conversations and access support.
As businesses look to find their new normal as we emerge from the pandemic, we are hopeful that more of them will take this opportunity to rebuild with positive mental health at the heart of the organisation.