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The Mental Health Pandemic Has Begun—Here’s How Business Leaders Can Help


Dr. Marta Ra is the co-founder of the international network Women in Sustainable Finance (WISF).

Even back in March 2020, business leaders feared the pandemic might spark a mental health crisis. Now, as soaring burnout and depression rates fuel the Great Resignation, are we already too late?

The Covid-19 pandemic has left a mental health crisis in its wake. Gallup reports that even prior to the pandemic, the world’s “negative experience index” had been rising to new heights; by 2021, 70% of the global population reported that they were struggling or suffering. Numerous other studies have found similar results.

But the true severity of the crisis may be slipping by us. How many times have you seen “freelancer flexibility” cited as a reason for the Great Resignation? It turns out that 411,000 UK workers left their jobs in 2021 because they were burnt out and exhausted, not so they could work from a cafe.

If we do not address the problems outlined below, the mental health pandemic will become unmanageable.

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Depression

Rates of depression are ever-increasing due to the impact loneliness and loss can have on our mental health.

Humans are evolutionarily wired to find a sense of meaning when we are in a community. Throughout history, being part of a tribe increased our chances of survival. When we are isolated for too long, the stage is set for depression. On top of this loneliness, we are all grieving things we have lost to the pandemic, whether that is time, relationships, careers or, most tragically, our loved ones. Grief often turns into depression, especially if we are dealing with that loss in isolation.

To tackle these issues, business leaders must focus on creating a sense of community in the workplace and permitting their employees to mourn. That might look like taking on an in-house grief specialist, organizing workshops or even just setting up weekly calls to discuss how the past two years have affected everyone.

Burnout

Burnout is skyrocketing across the globe. Burnout occurs when we have been navigating constant, relentless stress for too long. We have all spent the last two years trying to live and function with the knowledge that at any moment, we could be infected with a virus that will interrupt our lives, potentially create long-term health issues and possibly even kill us.

The impact of this constant fear can be quite subtle. How many times have you watched a movie and felt shocked when a character goes to a large event or walks into a store without a mask? These are danger signals coming from our brain, and they expose just how ingrained fear of infection has become in our minds.

This constant fear is stressful, and it has set us up for classic burnout symptoms like insomnia, exhaustion and stomach aches. To combat these side effects, focus on decreasing stress levels in the workplace. Consider facilitating flexible work schedules, trusting that everyone is doing their best. Make sure everyone understands what is expected of them (and what isn’t). Further, encourage a positive work-life balance. To do this, leaders need to lead by example when it comes to creating boundaries and prioritizing self-care. You set the precedent, so don’t respond to business emails on weekends and make sure to take your own PTO.

Substance Abuse

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Addictions can happen when someone is in so much pain that they cannot manage or tolerate it—hence why traumatic experiences are a leading cause of addiction. When a person reaches a point where they can no longer sit with their pain, they may feel the only way to manage it is to spend periods of time detached from their suffering.

If 70% of the world’s population is struggling, we can safely, and sadly, assume that a lot of that pain will be unmanageable and people will lean on addictive substances to cope. Indeed, we are now seeing more and more people suffering with addiction, as well as tragically high rates of opioid overdose in the U.S. Addictions can also appear in more subtle ways, such as an increase in social media or internet use.

You should make it clear to employees that struggling with addiction is not a moral failing or character flaw. Rather, demonstrate that you understand people are in pain and seeking relief.

If an employee is battling addiction, they need a path to recovery rather than fear of termination. To achieve this, have a clear action plan that employees can go to should they need help. Try to make resources easily accessible. For instance, contact mental health professionals and make sure your employees know they can reach out. If possible, have an in-house mental health expert employees can go to to share concerns.

Final Thoughts

Education is key. If we do not understand mental illness, we will not know how to respond to it. Try to familiarize yourself with the symptoms of depression, anxiety, burnout and substance abuse to better support your employees. Although the mental health crisis is already underway, we still have time to halt it. If leaders across the globe make mental health a priority, we could one day find ourselves speaking about the Great Restoration that came after the Great Resignation.


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