Destigmatizing Mental Health in the Workplace Is Critical as Schools and Workplaces Reopen

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Earlier this year, our house was fumigated for termites. If you’ve ever had this done before, you know what an ordeal it can be. We had to find alternate housing, seal all our food, and uproot our work and school schedules to make it happen. This would have been a burden in a “normal” environment, but it took on a whole new level of stress in the midst of a pandemic. As a full-time professional and mother of two, I sometimes wondered how we would manage.

When I returned to work, my thoughtful colleagues asked me how my vacation went. My inclination was to skirt past the details and say that it was fine. But the reality is that it wasn’t fine — it was stressful! Instead, I shared what happened and discussed how it affected my family’s stress level.

As a corporate leader and firm believer in being human first, I know that I should be open and honest about my experiences if I want to create stronger relationships, build trust, and help establish and encourage well-being practices for my colleagues. While fumigation was a relatively small inconvenience, I hope that creating space to talk about how it impacted my mental health can help pave the way for others to speak more freely about their own mental health.

The current pandemic is causing stress and anxiety for all of us. Right now, parents are trying to figure out how they will manage schooling and childcare while tackling different versions of what it means to return to work.

As I’ve written before, the pandemic affects each of us differently, and the mental health ramifications can be dire. Approximately one in five adults experienced mental illness before the pandemic’s onset, and experts warned in May of a historic wave of mental-health problems. According to a recent survey, women are 2.5 times more likely than men to say mental well-being is a challenge right now.

Studies show that employees want leaders to talk about mental health, and up to 80 percent of us will manage a mental health condition in our lifetime. As leaders, we should help normalize mental health conversations now so we can better support one another when challenges arise.

Change starts at the top. That’s why, at PwC, we coach our leaders to share their experiences and model vulnerability to help reduce stigma. We’ve also enhanced our existing suite of benefits to help address the interim issues faced by parents and those who may be caring for family members. Mostly, I’m proud that we already had mental health support systems in place before the pandemic began, which helped position us to better meet the needs of our employees and evolve those same programs as the pandemic continued.

Still, we are far from perfect. Creating a culture that supports the needs of your employees is a constant learning process, one that requires honesty and transparency. Here’s what we’ve learned about destigmatizing mental health during this incredibly challenging time:

1. It Starts With Culture

Mental health benefits can only do so much. To create lasting change, you need a culture shift, one that is solid and unshakable and puts well-being first. This means supporting employees so they don’t feel stigma or shame, which can be associated with mental health conversations. We encourage our people to be open and share, whether they are feeling overwhelmed on a particular day, need some help designing a more flexible schedule, or could benefit from help from specialists. We want to help affirm these conversations so that discussing mental health becomes no different from discussing physical health.

2. Lean Into the Concept of Community

Throughout this crisis, we have observed that our people value virtual communities organized around common challenges they may be facing: parenting, homeschooling, living alone, caring for aging family members, managing anxiety, working effectively in a virtual environment, and many more. These communities have allowed deeper personal connections to form and given people the sense that they are not going it alone.

3. Sharing Helps Drive Accountability

We’ve learned that the simple act of committing to specific well-being actions, then sharing these actions with colleagues, can result in improved mental health. This ties back to the concept of culture change and the reality that those around us can help hold us accountable when they’re made aware of what we’re dealing with or the specific support we might need.

We’re just beginning to understand the impact COVID-19 may have on mental health, so it’s critical that leaders and companies support the mental health of their employees and help destigmatize the conversation now. You, your colleagues, and your organization can be more resilient and better prepared to respond to the impacts of the pandemic as a result.

If you or a loved one may be struggling with mental health, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

DeAnne Aussem is leadership development and well-being leader at PwC US.

By DeAnne Aussem