The silent pandemic of employee mental health
Engagement 5 minute read

The silent pandemic of employee mental health

Julie Bevacqua | November 26, 2020

Employee mental health has been a big concern as teams continue to work remotely and face isolation due to the ongoing pandemic. There are many things that leaders can—and should be—doing to help.

In any given year, 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental health problem or illness. Of course, 2020 isn’t any given year. We’re all struggling in ways that we couldn’t imagine before. 

All the typical causes of stress—health, finances, childcare, job security—have been exacerbated by COVID-19 in what’s being called an “echo pandemic”. As the Canadian Mental Health Association notes, many Canadians had unmet mental health needs before the pandemic—and social isolation and reduced medical care have made things worse. We’re also approaching the winter months, where days are shorter and the lack of natural light causes more people to experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which accounts for approximately 10% of depression cases in Canada. 

Stigmatization is still happening too, with 38% of people believing that if they reveal their mental health issues at work, it will harm their career. Staying silent on issues regarding employee mental health is detrimental to you, your employees, and your organization as a whole. 

As leaders, we need to lead by example, by being open, non-judgmental and practicing gratitude and self-care. 

There are many tangible actions you can take to help with employee mental health.

Here are some examples:

  1. Be willing to talk about mental health, and make it possible for others in your organization to talk about it. At first, you might not have a lot of people willing to step forward, but it’s important that employees know that they can talk about their mental health issues without any repercussions at work. 
  2. Practice gratitude. Whether it’s writing down a list of things that make you grateful each day or week, or asking that employees share something they’re grateful for during monthly meetings, practicing gratitude helps shift negativity into positive thinking and improves mental wellness overall. 
  3. Practice self-care and encourage others to do the same. This can mean anything from taking a personal day to avoid burnout, or asking for help with difficult tasks.
  4. Ask employees how they’re doing and feeling. Really listen to their answers. Listen for the overarching themes of their concerns, such as burnout or loneliness. 

The mantra for 2020 could be ‘get comfortable being uncomfortable”, as it’s been a year where being uncomfortable has been the norm. 

Talking about mental health is still considered taboo. Whether or not you’re comfortable sharing your own struggles, most people find that vulnerability makes them uneasy. It can also be difficult as a leader to cross the boundary between professional and personal into something that’s often deeply private.

However, in times of crisis, it’s our humanity that is most valuable to employees. Your employees will appreciate your candour and understanding.

In order to recognize which employees are struggling with mental health issues, it’s essential that you know your people. You won’t be able to tell if something is wrong if you don’t know someone’s normal behaviour or attitude. 

A big part of getting to know people is learning how to listen effectively. As leaders, we tend to be solutions-orientated. While this makes us good at our jobs, it can sometimes lead to trying to fix things for employees, rather than allowing them to express whatever it is that they’re feeling. If you find yourself wondering what you’re supposed to do about what they’re sharing with you, you’ve stopped listening.

As many organizations continue to work remotely, listening is extremely important. You might not be able to be there physically for your employees, but you can show them you care by listening and offering to help them find the resources they need. 

Creating a work environment that emphasizes openness and honesty is essential for prioritizing employee mental health.

Leaders must demonstrate their own vulnerability by having conversations about mental health, both one-on-one with employees and company-wide.

You should also encourage managers and team leaders to check in with their employees and one another. It can be as simple as saying, “I know things are hard right now. How are you managing?”

These conversations don’t have to be solely focused on what’s going on with the employee. The tone can be more generic and the topic more about the challenges that most employees are currently facing. 

Have courageous conversations. Talk openly, frankly and honestly about mental health because when you do, you're one step closer to healing.

The silence around mental health will only be broken when people make these conversations a priority. Every time we make a decision to talk about it, and not remain quiet, the more healing is possible. This means healthier companies, stronger communities and more vibrant families and employees. 

How do you speak up about mental health at your work?

Give your employees, and yourself, the experience we all deserve.

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