It’s unfortunate it took a pandemic for the majority of today’s leaders to recognize the importance and critical need for mental health support in the workplace. Before the pandemic, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, there were 51.5 million U.S. adults living with a mental illness — that’s nearly one in five people. A survey by my company of more than 500 U.S. adults shows that from the start of the pandemic in 2020, more than half of them have experienced more stress and anxiety than at any other time in their lives.
In the last two years, we’ve seen progress when it comes to addressing mental health. Public figures, athletes and leaders have spoken out about their own mental health challenges and helped make positive shifts in normalizing the conversation. More dialogue in the workplace has also helped destigmatize it. We’ve even seen change at the government level with California passing legislation that limits wait times for mental health care to no more than 10 business days. But all of this progress is for nothing if we don’t have a healthcare system to actually support it.
The biggest challenge in today’s mental healthcare system is the lack of mental health professionals. While the demand for support has never been higher, the supply of healthcare professionals is concerningly low. The American Psychological Association estimates there are just 34 licensed psychologists for every 100,000 people in the U.S.
The good news? With the help of technology, new solutions are available that are focused on alleviating this supply-and-demand problem by triaging people to the right level of care, introducing new modalities of care and prioritizing the experience (no more long wait lines for access to therapy). But we’ve still only scratched the surface of what’s possible. To continue this progress, it’s on employers to invest in the mental well-being of their employees and continue to destigmatize mental health.
As leaders, we can’t settle for temporary fixes to help our workforces weather today’s storms — we need to commit to proactive, preventative and long-term solutions to help them become healthier and more resilient. The decisions we make today will impact our employees long after the pandemic is behind us. Here are some easy and actionable ways to make sure your employees are getting the care they need:
• Look at the data. It is critical to understand what types of mental health support are most important to your employees and which programs they’re using regularly. For example, are employees engaging with the EAP program you’re offering? Whether it’s through employee surveys or informal conversations, gathering this data will help your organization invest in benefits that your employees will actually use and get rid of what doesn’t make sense. And don’t forget to communicate this insight across your organization so other employees know what’s out there so they can make use of it too.
• The power of coaches. Educate your employees about the different options of care available. One way to navigate the shortage of mental health practitioners is to see a qualified coach instead of a therapist for non-clinical challenges like stress. There’s evidence it works, and studies have shown that coaching can help improve mental health and quality of life. There are more coaches than therapists available to provide care, enabling people to get help sooner.
• Continue to be an advocate for mental health support. Business leaders have taken a stronger stance on mental health support as a result of the pandemic and its impact on well-being. This is great, but we need to make sure it’s not short-lived. In another survey by my company with Forrester Consulting, we found that 60% of leaders plan to revert to their pre-pandemic mental health strategy. This disconnect between the needs of employees and the intentions of leadership will cause businesses huge backlash among employees who are now emboldened by The Great Resignation and the demand for talent.
Supporting mental health is the right thing to do. And until our health care system gets its act together, we as leaders need to step up to the plate to make sure our employees have access to the care they need. It’s our job as business leaders to make the well-being of our employees our first priority.