Mayer: The employees are not all right

It’s a massive understatement to say our collective mental state isn’t good. I’ve reported countless distressing statistics over the past several weeks: 75% of employees are currently experiencing burnout at work. The risk for depression among U.S. workers has risen a whopping 102% as a result of the coronavirus pandemic–305% for workers aged 20-39. Financial stressors are sky-high, with employees worried about losing their jobs (or their spouses losing their jobs), having less money or seeing their 401(k) balances drop.

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Related: 15 must-read stories on mental health for HR executives

Even the holiday season, usually a time of fun, celebration and gatherings with families and friends, will not be the same. It’s a hard pill to swallow, adding to the better part of a year defined by massive unemployment, fears over health, not traveling, not taking vacation time and overall longing for normalcy in a time when nothing is normal at all.

With COVID-19 taking so much, it seems the disease is on track to cause its own mental health pandemic in the years to come.

Related: Why employers should act now on mental health

Although the crisis is exacerbating psychological issues, it’s important to acknowledge that our mental health crisis is not new. Conditions were already on the rise before the pandemic hit. And it was a problem that frankly, we weren’t doing all that good a job of addressing.

As a record number of employees look to their employers for help, the current reality is revealing a startling fact: Many employers did not have the benefits, programs or culture in place to adequately address mental health concerns even before coronavirus. Those shortcomings ran the gamut: a lack of resources offered; lackluster communication about existing offerings; and a near-unanimous view that the subject was too taboo for the workplace. The pandemic has aggravated issues, to be sure, but significantly, it’s also put into focus a host of flaws in our system.

Related: Is COVID-19 a turning point for workplace mental health?

Arianna Huffington

One bright spot in the pandemic is the attention mental health is now getting. I can’t talk to anyone in the industry without mental health coming up in the conversation–the importance, the renewed focus, new workplace programs. It’s the topic most every expert or employer wants to discuss. It’s important and it’s progress, but it’s also unfortunate that that so many employers are already far behind, rushing to catch up and make meaningful change for so many employees who are suffering.

It’s no secret that workplace culture is tied to mental health. It’s not just about wellness benefits and programs–it’s also about how employees are treated, what kind of work-life balance they have, what support they receive, what flexibility, what appreciation and recognition–the list goes on.

“All of us have been brought up in a culture that encourages that we should simply power through exhaustion and keep working [when we’re] running on empty,” Arianna Huffington told me during a phone interview last month. “That’s why [mental health and self-care] more important than ever, with these stresses and anxiety. They affect our productivity, our performance and our health.”

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Huffington’s prediction?

“This is a time of trial, but also a time when we have an opportunity to reimagine the world of work and the world of human resources. There’s a lot that was not working even before the pandemic. We were living life in a [reckless] way … burnout acknowledged by the World Health Organization as a real occupation hazard. Now we have an opportunity to rebuild the way we work.”

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.