Article

A focus on mental health can help prepare employees for re-entry

Never before have mental health and business objectives become so intertwined. Here’s what we learned at SXSW 2021 about the importance of workplace wellness.

By Page Grossman, Contributing Writer

Published August 6, 2021
Last updated September 27, 2021

Though the pandemic isn’t fully behind us, we’ve entered a new phase wherein we’re reevaluating whether or not to continue masking and when to return to the office, and what protocols should be in place for the next academic year. There are a lot of choices that inform what our ‘next normal’ may look like—and we’re attempting to answer these questions in the wake of our collective trauma.

This was a topic of conversation during the SXSW 2021 virtual conference. In a panel titled, “The Looming Mental Health Crisis Tsunami,” medical experts and a chief executive from Accenture convened to discuss the questions that are top of mind for employers. One thing that was clear: There’s a lot we don’t know.

“All we know about disasters is limited to time-limited and geographic events, nothing as universal as the pandemic,” said Cristiane Duarte, professor in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Columbia University - New York State Psychiatric Institute.

Panelist Patrice Harris, immediate past president, American Medical Association, talked about how we’ve suffered “parallel crises,” with COVID-19 exposing our lack of mental health infrastructure, the social determinants of health and health inequalities, and the inequity between people of different races in our county. Multiple traumatic events sit atop of one another. In other words, it’s a lot.

One thing we do know: “The closer you are to the distress, or have a history of trauma or have a psychiatric disorder, this is going to be an increasingly difficult time,” said Linda Rosenberg, former president & CEO of the National Council For Behavioral Health.

Re-entry shock: Back to business isn’t the solution

While entering into a lockdown was a shock and a surprise for many or most of us, going back to normal may be just as traumatic, panelists explained. In the before times, we led busy, overscheduled lives. For many, stay-at-home orders revealed the level of stress and strain we were under—and potentially, even a few ways to fix it.

“Trauma of reentry” is an idea that comes from aid workers returning home and the formerly incarcerated reentering society. There are reverberations of and similarities to culture shock. At its simplest, the culture where you’ve been spending time is so different from the one you’re entering that it causes a trauma response.

For the past 18 months, we’ve been working from home, ordering stuff online or reducing our shopping, and limiting in-person social engagements. Going back to restrictive clothing, commuting, social events and busy calendars can be a form of culture shock.

This interim period is our time to get prepared—to recognize the potential for trauma, creating a tool kit of coping skills, and making decisions about what we will or won’t let back into our lives—as individuals, but also as employers supporting employees’ needs.

[Related read: Post-pandemic trends from a futurist: what consumers and employees want next]

Re-entering at different rates

As always, those who are marginalized will feel the effects of this change more than others, panelists cautioned. Mothers, and parents in general, are returning to the workplace more slowly and in smaller numbers.

For the most part, caregiving duties are still taken on by women. While caring for children and the elderly, women aren’t able to reenter the workforce at the same rate as men. This gender gap will have long-term effects on earning potential and job promotion for women in the workplace.

U.S. Census Bureau data shows that the number of working mothers declined 21.1 percentage points while the number of working fathers dropped only 14.7 points in April 2020. That said, mothers are returning to the workplace—the unemployment rate for mothers was 13.9 percent in April 2020 and has dropped to 6 percent as of January 2021.

According to Harris, “Our systems of care are very difficult to navigate. As we center equity and mental health, we need to make sure the system is easy to navigate.”

Employers can help support employees by providing access to the care employees need—including support for mental as well as physical health, to help make mental healthcare a more equitable and accessible system.

Best Buy as a business of customer and employee experience

During a different SXSW session, “Pivot to Growth: The Business of Experience,” Allison Peterson, chief customer officer at Best Buy discussed strategies to become a business of experience. She shared that Best Buy aims to put customers and employees at the heart of its business by routinely asking: Are there policies in play that are counter to customer needs and employee needs?

According to Peterson, the company’s ​​three guiding principles as a ‘business of experience’ are:

  1. Stay in tune with customers and start to anticipate their needs
  2. Constantly check the pulse of customers to find their needs
  3. Never forget: customer also means employee

The point Peterson underscored was that you can’t have happy customers without happy employees—and the key to unlocking both is keeping it real. “Customer obsession only happens if you have employee obsession,” says Peterson. To have employee obsession means keeping work human. We need vulnerability, we need to give ourselves grace, and admit when we make mistakes. “These are the leadership skills that are quintessential today.”

Part of that means addressing the changes we’ve all made or lived through this past year-plus, or acknowledging how well your team functioned under duress and from their homes with their kids in the background or their cats on their lap. There is the opportunity now to make work into anything that we want.

[Related read: The business imperative of supporting your people]

How employers can help normalize mental health

Panelists from “The Looming Mental Health Crisis Tsunami” explained that one of the best things employers can do is to normalize mental health care and to center it within the workplace. There are many ways to start this journey, many of which are even free.

Here are a few ideas they offered:

  • Offer therapy and mental health checks as part of your standard health insurance and perk package
  • Include mental health days as part of employee paid time off
  • Talk about mental health struggles and coping mechanisms in the office so it’s not a taboo topic
  • Hold seminars on self-care and healthy work environments
  • Be aware that marginalized populations may need access to different mental health resources
  • Create and maintain quiet spaces for focused work, naps, and meditation
  • Train managers to look for the signs and symptoms of stress, burnout, and depression and how to offer initial support and resources

[Related read: Supporting your customers starts with supporting your agents]

Make space for change—and growth

More than anything, what employers can do to support employees in this post-pandemic transition phase is to allow space for how this pandemic has transformed us all

Some of the changes we’ve made are healthy, and employees will want to make them permanent. That may be allowing for flexibility between office time and work-from-home time, cutting down on commutes or expensive business attire.

Ask your employees what matters to them and create space to listen. There’s an opportunity to work together to co-create an ideal office space and work environment—and thereby a more open work culture.

Panelists did say there’s hope on the horizon. Sometimes, the biggest tragedies also bring forth the strongest and longest periods of unity and growth.

Duarte shared that “with the right support after trauma, you can see growth.” This is known as post-traumatic growth and is something the U.S. saw after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

If employers can provide the scaffolding to employees for creating a more balanced and human workplace, and create policies that de-stigmatize and make access to mental health services easier, then together we can harness this period of trauma and change into business cultures of wellness and productivity.

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