“Mental health is at the core of our humanity” according to António Guterres, Secretary-General, United Nations.
Being mentally healthy enables us to lead productive and fulfilling lives. However, with one in four of us predicted to suffer a mental health episode during our lifetime, even without the negative impact caused by COVID-19, it’s an issue we cannot afford to ignore. And If we look solely at Millennials, it’s an even more serious matter.
The millennial generation is three and a half times more likely than baby boomers to believe their workplace environment is a contributing factor to their mental health. And three to four times more likely to experience anxiety symptoms at work, according to Mind Share. The Pew Research Centre’s forecast for millennials’ mental health in 2020 was not positive from the start. It reported a rise in depression and “deaths of despair” linked to issues such as loneliness and financial stress.
What is worrying is that these statistics did not include the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, with its long-term effects that will further compound these predictions. The negative consequences of the pandemic are affecting not only individuals but the wider community and businesses. The repercussions from isolation, possible grief, restrictions on movement, complicated family dynamics and an uncertain future, are leaving many more vulnerable. Even those who have not experienced mental illness before are beginning to feel the strain.
Human connectivity has been disrupted with the pandemic. Even the simple handshake, which releases oxytocin (a hormone affecting love and connection), is now a thing of the past. A situation that started as a few weeks has now escalated into months. Those who may have managed their situation positively during the initial stages of the pandemic are now running out of coping mechanisms. COVID-19 has exacerbated the mental health of millennials, leaving them more anxious and likely to withdraw and become less connected – resulting in an increased possibility of anxiety and depression.
Mental illness is no longer an individual’s issue but one that societies and countries as a whole must address. It’s heartening to see countries like New Zealand take the lead. Last year, its government unveiled a Well-Being budget, reflecting its focus on addressing mental health issues, amongst other things. Likewise, companies should look to do the same. It’s not an issue that merely belongs to employees – it’s everyone’s challenge – especially with the boundaries between personal and professional space becoming increasingly blurred.
As we are witnessing today, change in organisations is not just triggered by M&A or senior management re-organisation, but by global issues like COVID-19. It becomes more necessary for companies to review their internal processes and redeploy resources to support their employees.
While mental health is not easily measured, companies cannot ignore its effect on lost productivity, absenteeism, job abandonment, and higher turnover. All these have a trickle-down effect beyond just the impacted employee, affecting others and the company’s bottom line. Depression and anxiety may seem incalculable, but were reported by the World Health Organisation to cost the economy an estimated 1 trillion dollars a year in lost productivity – a sobering statistic!
What can companies do to support mental health?
With millennials more susceptible to mental illness, companies need to look at introducing tools and capabilities to help them cope, stay connected and nurture their wellbeing.
- Eradicate the stigma and discrimination associated with mental health that are preventing millennials from seeking help. Through continuous dialogues with employees, companies can develop new and different ways that employees can deliver their work, that also support mental wellness
- Explore future-ready roles that support wellbeing. For example, it’s positive to see more organisations recruiting Chief Wellness Officers
- Create a benefits structure for tomorrow that includes a wellness component and covers conditions such as anxiety and depression
- Promote mindfulness programmes as an alternative to, for example, aerobics and establish more sensitivity around mental health issues
- Establish flexible work arrangements and the adoption of open communication. Create relevant platforms that not only encourage dialogue and destigmatise mental health, but also educate
- Consider the relevancy and frequency of communication channels, as well as their measurement in terms of KPI’s
- Launch a “buddy system” within the workplace. This does not necessarily have to be with someone in HR or senior management. Instead, it could be a trusted and influential individual within the organisation
- Equip HR teams through training courses or engage a third-party service provider to help guide them through the process
We are facing unprecedented times, and the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the mental health agenda. With millennials groomed to be our future leaders, their mental health is paramount. The possible long term catastrophic consequences for companies, communities and countries can be avoided with proactive measures. Managing mental health and its lasting effects successfully will be essential as we emerge from this pandemic and adjust to the new norm.