HR executives and buyers are hopeful the end of the pandemic is on the horizon. If everything goes as hoped, the stress-inducing work-from-home routine will come to an end before 2022. Naturally, business leaders are shy of scheduling return-to-work dates, which is both imminent and the cause of remarkable anxiety. For HR managers, this means facing a workforce with more than a year’s worth of emotional scars from acute stress. The cumulative impact of stress, grief, and anxiety amid COVID-19 has created an emotional toll that will linger for some time.
The employees who came to work in February 2020 will not be the same workers who return to their desks when it is deemed safe. “Return to work” will not be synonymous with “return to normal.”
How HR responds to this imminent mental health pandemic will shape corporate culture, employee engagement, and the bottom line now and well into the future. Communicating the business case for, and the return on investment of, a diverse and multipronged approach to mental health support and care will be HR’s job.
Decline in Mental Health = Decline in Cognitive Competency
Employee well-being and business performance cannot be siloed. Without intervention and support, the workforce of 2021 will be characterized by a lack of focus, poor memory and planning skills, and low productivity. A decline in cognitive competencies is the natural fallout of deteriorating mental health linked to persistent stress and anxiety.
According to the Mental Health Index: U.S. Worker Edition, employee stress levels, already considered high before the pandemic, rose 22%, and anxiety rose 45% since February 2020. Employees’ risk of depression is up 145% when compared with before the pandemic. Furthermore, general anxiety is up 80%, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is up 77%, and social anxiety is up 61% since last year.
A snapshot of employees’ mental health between November and December 2020 paints an equally alarming picture. Findings from our most recent brain capacity assessments of 500 U.S. workers revealed a 48% increase in the risk of depression in just 1 month—a perilous risk level not seen since the height of the pandemic this past spring. Furthermore, employees’ focus dropped 62%, a record low since the inception of the research in February 2020.
Workers were already stressed before the pandemic, but the current situation is causing unprecedented levels of concern. The Mental Health Index data show a complete hijacking of the nonconscious brain by stress, fear, and uncertainty. And the result is a direct hit on employee performance, as documented by decades of research on stress and anxiety in the workplace.
The inextricable link between employee mental health and employee performance and productivity is undeniable. A company can only thrive if its employees are thriving. Following is the case for ramping up employee mental health initiatives.
Declining Employee Engagement
When under stress, people communicate less effectively. This may look like missed deadlines, lost productivity, and a breakdown in corporate culture. According to research by the Anxiety and Depression Disorders Association of America (ADAA), 51% of workers said that stress interferes with coworker relationships. Furthermore, 73% said they avoid social situations, 53% said they become short-tempered, and 43% reported skipping meetings.
Ineffective leaders fear making mistakes and are indecisive. According to research by organizational and leadership expert Dick Thompson, PhD, high levels of stress and anxiety affect major brain systems like the prefrontal cortex, which controls higher-level thinking processes such as analysis and decision-making, and the amygdala, which supports emotional response. When both parts of the brain are hampered by stress, leaders often over-analyze, avoid making decisions, or “flip-flop” on decisions. Many leaders are also struggling with how to talk with their employees about sensitive topics such as anxiety and depression.
Loss of Productivity
Employees who struggle with mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, often experience foggy thinking, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating, and routine absences. According to research cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 80% of persons with depression reported some level of functional impairment because of their depression, and 27% reported serious difficulties in work and home life. Furthermore, in a 3-month period, patients with depression suffer 11.5 days of reduced productivity.
According to Mental Health America, 35% of employees “always” miss 3–5 days a month because of workplace stress.
When the brain moves into fight-or-flight mode prompted by anxiety and stress, all energy goes toward short-term survivalist thinking. The brain’s capacity for higher-level reasoning, planning, and creativity is compromised.Research published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine findsdepression interferes with a person’s ability to complete physical job tasks about 20% of the time and reduces cognitive performance about 35% of the time. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers who must take time off work because of stress, anxiety, or a related disorder will be off the job for about 20 days.
Increase in Healthcare Costs
Mental health and physical health are interconnected. According to the American Psychological Association, stress is associated with six leading causes of death, including heart disease, cancer, and suicide. It also causes and/or exacerbates mental health problems like depression and general anxiety. Healthcare expenditures are far greater for employees with mental health issues. According to benefit consulting firm Willis Towers Watson, workers with mental health concerns make six times as many emergency room visits as the overall population and submit two to four times as many medical claims. People suffering from depression submit an average of $14,967 per year in claims compared with $5,929 a year for the total population.
Are You Prepared to Make the Case?
We are seeing an unprecedented rise in risk of mental health conditions. At the same time, we are witnessing a sharp decline in cognitive functions. This is a crisis that should alarm everyone in the business community. There is another pandemic going on: the mental health pandemic, for which there will be no vaccine. Increased investment and attention to mental health issues makes good business sense. Are you prepared to make the case?
Melissa Frieswick is Chief Customer Officer at Total Brain, a mental health and brain performance self-monitoring and self-care platform. Frieswick has focused her career on improving health care within the United States and globally. She has worked with some of the most forward-thinking employers, payers, and consultants, including Maven, a digital healthcare company, and Virgin Pulse, part of Richard Branson’s famed Virgin Group and a global leader within the health and well-being market.