Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – One in 10 workers are losing a whole day of productivity every week, due to mental health conditions brought on in large part by the stressors of the past year. In addition, 55 percent of employees report increased mental health problems during the pandemic and 36 percent report higher substance abuse issues.
“It’s been a very impactful year,” said George L. Vergolias, Medical director of R3 Continuum. “The costs are staggering.”
In addition to the direct costs, such as healthcare expenses and short- and long-term disability, are indirect costs like absenteeism, presenteeism and employee turnover. Mental health problems result in lost productivity, less innovation, reduced collaboration and decreased morale.
A recent study out of Canada estimated the annual cost of poor mental health in the workplace at $50 billion, including $6.3 billion related to lost productivity. The costs are even more in the U.S. The question is, what should employers do about it?
“It’s very costly not to do something,” Veregolias said. “We are clearly in an age where we are going to pay a little bit now or even a medium bit now or we’re going to pay a lot later by not dealing and managing and promoting workplaces of mental health and well being.”
During a recent webinar, Vergolias discussed trends in mental health issues in the workplace and the benefits to organizations that proactively support well being among employees.
Contrary to what some may believe, the vast majority of people who go through a type of trauma will recover. Traumatic experiences don’t cause trauma; instead, remembering and continually reliving a trauma causes a sustained traumatic reaction. Humans are designed to recover from trauma.
“Resilience is ubiquitous; it is all around us. It is the normative response to trauma,” Vergolias explained. “The key is for most traumatic events we will go through in our lives, we absorb the blow emotionally — through our churches, our families, our sports teams, our neighbors, our hobbies that allow us to reconnect to a sense of we were before the trauma … It’s important to remember that because as leaders, as workers, as coworkers it’s important because we want to build on those natural resilience coping mechanisms whenever we can.”
Knowing and understand about the resiliency of people is important for employers to be able to help their employees. Another important fact to understand is that events such as emotional breakdowns, suicidal threats and violence don’t occur in a vacuum.
“People don’t ‘snap!’” Vergolias said. “There are warning signs. We can be trained to see them, and early identification does make a difference.”
As he said, emotional or mental health crises don’t just happen immediately any more than a volcano erupts out of the blue. Scientifically we know the volcano has been building pressure for a long time, and the explosion is the end of many processes that have been going on internally. “When we understand that people engage in emotional crises in response to building stressors and pressures, we can have a more upstream approach and have a more proactive approach to solving that.”
A Conceptual Shift
Promoting mental health and well being among employees takes a different way of think by employers, Vergolias said. It requires a cultural shift, where all departments of an organization work in concert to help build resilience among employees so they are better able to handle traumas and stressors — especially those of the last year.
“It’s important to make a conceptual shift from thinking of a crisis, be it one individual has a crisis or a company or a department or a warehouse or location; don’t think of these as singular events but think of it as more of an engaged process,” Vergolias said. “What I mean by that is it is a process of ‘how do we right now prepare our people to build resilience pre crisis, when everything’s going well.’ When it hits, ‘how do we help them adapt and respond to the crisis in a way that maximizes resilience and maximizes them getting their life back’ … and then post crisis ‘how do we focus in on continuing to recover in a way that builds sustainability emotionally, psychologically, interpersonally and fiscally.’”
A big part of helping to build resilience among workers is the way things are communicated. For example, if an employee exhibits concerning behavior and is flagged for a fitness-for-duty evaluation, there are two ways to handle the situation.
“Quite often that process is seen as very adversarial and contentious; ‘you need to get to an evaluation because we think you are a danger.’ … so they enter the process with a non-clinical but understandable paranoia and fear and defensiveness. And then it sets both parties up,” Vergolias said. “What we’re trying to talk about with fit-for-duty evaluations and other types of interventions is, don’t make it adversarial, make it more collaborative and supportive. ‘We’re not trying to get you an intervention because we think there’s something wrong with you, we’re trying to get you an intervention to help you level up,’ or ‘to help you reach the next level’, or ‘help you regain your life back.’ That’s verbiage that’s very different from ‘something is wrong with you.’”
Organizations can work to become models for workplace thriving by focusing on building resilience among their workers. This, in turn, improves their mental health and well being. Vergolias outlined a conceptual model for workplace thriving that includes three target areas; pre-crisis, crisis and post crisis.
Proactive readiness. This is focused on overall mental wellness and includes such things as awareness and education around coping resources; mindfulness; and wellness outreach, in which people do ‘check-ins’ with workers to see how are doing.
Response. This is focused on stability during or immediately after a crisis. “Say there’s been a tornado, a cyber attack, an accidental death, or violence,” Vergolias said. “The immediate goal is to stabilize the environment. How do we get it safe and secure? How do we help people process the impact and get their psychological feet under them? That’s the real goal here.” This includes tools such as various evaluations; strategic crisis consultants to help employees navigate the situation; facilitated discussions, to address difficult conversations such as racial tensions; and mental health first aid.
Recovery. This phase is focused on accelerating a functional return. “It’s about how do we repair, get back to the whole? How do I get my life back psychologically, emotionally, even physically?” Vergolias said. This may involve working with return-to-work consultants to help a worker returning after a spouse’s death, for example, to better understand how he and his coworkers know what to say.