Business leaders have for decades boasted in company annual reports about how people are their priority. It is surprising, therefore, that mental health has taken so long to reach the top of their agenda. Until relatively recently, exhaustion was the official reason given when chief executives buckled under job pressure. Stress and burnout were mentioned only rarely; mental health almost never.
Gradually, though, the stigma attached to mental illness has started to fade. Leaders such as Lloyds Banking Group chief executive António Horta-Osório, who was laid low in 2011 by stress-induced insomnia, now speak out more regularly about the need to tackle and prevent workplace burnout.
Coronavirus and subsequent lockdowns are a two-pronged attack on the mental wellbeing of workers, compounded by bereavement, personal grief and the broader temptation to “doom-scroll” bad news streaming through social media.
In the UK, for instance, nearly 20 per cent of adults experienced some form of depression in June 2020 — double the proportion before the pandemic hit, with younger adults suffering more than most. Average life satisfaction in the UK is now at its lowest since the official survey of the pandemic’s social impact started in late March.
The corporate response has accelerated accordingly. Human resources teams sprang to provide succour for staff, from therapy sessions to mindfulness apps. HR managers report a surge in calls to employee assistance hotlines. Yet initiatives such as meeting-free days, or mandated days off for all staff, however creditable, risk looking like window-dressing when compared with the scale of the problem.
Strategies to reduce risks to mental health need to be deepened, expanded beyond companies and sustained beyond the crisis, with the emphasis placed as much on prevention as on treatment and cure.
“Common humanity,” as economist Richard Layard has written, ought to be a good enough reason. But there is also a strong economic justification. It is nine years since a report from the World Economic Forum and the Harvard School of Public Health projected the economic cost of mental illness, including loss of productivity, would double to more than $6tn by 2030.
Mental health, however, remains a neglected area of scientific study, as the backers of a new $10bn research fund, the Healthy Brains Global Initiative, have pointed out. Despite strong evidence of the efficacy of cheaper solutions, such as psychological therapy, for the treatment of milder mental illness, too often health systems resort to medication. Even then, only a minority of patients receive any kind of treatment, even fewer in poorer countries.
More research and better access to appropriate treatment are not the only ways to deal with the mental illness epidemic at source. Company chiefs should impose a manageable workload from the top and ensure all team leaders — not just HR managers — understand mental illness and are equipped to damp down the risk of burnout before it flares up.
Enforced remote working has taught business leaders more about their employees’ family and community hinterland. They ought to have a new appreciation of the strains imposed on staff when close relatives fall ill. It makes sense to extend employee assistance automatically to dependants, especially in countries where the social safety net is ragged.
The corporate umbrella usually only covers corporate citizens, though. Those pushed into unemployment or gig-economy piecework in the post-Covid recession will be more vulnerable to debt worries and housing problems, which are triggers for mental illness. Economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case cite severe mental distress, particularly among poorer-educated white Americans, as one of the factors contributing to the “deaths of despair” — from suicide, drugs overdose and alcohol abuse — analysed in their book of the same name.
Wider policy reforms that might remove some deeper causes of mental illness must be the responsibility of governments, not business. Sadly, the pandemic will stretch their resources more than ever. Still, if there were ever a time for policymakers to address the structural and societal roots of poor mental health, and thus cut the longer-range costs of treating its symptoms later, this is surely it.
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