Due to the pandemic we’re currently amidst, it’s getting harder to remember the workplace that existed before COVID-19.

As humans, we tend to romanticize the past, and when we think back to the pre-COVID-19 workplace we may think of in-person meetings, incidental water cooler social visits, Christmas parties, or meetings that may or may not have drifted to a nearby patio.

 

A problem long before COVID-19

 

And, while any concerns prior to mid-March this year may feel miniscule in comparison, the workplace was experiencing a growing mental health problem well before COVID-19. Employees cited their work as the number one source of stress in their lives, citing reasons such as anxiety around deadlines, long work hours, conflict resolution, interpersonal relationships with managers or colleagues, and staff management. We also know that mental health was the number one source of absenteeism, which is an employee’s intentional or habitual absence from work without a ‘good reason’, costing organizations $2,650 USD or $3,477 CAD per employee, per year.  This does not account for costs of presenteeism, being at work but not functioning due to illness, injury, or other conditions, which is estimated to cost organizations 7.5x the rate of absenteeism.

Organizational leaders recognized this problem, too. According to the American Heart Association, 75% of leaders cited stress as the number one workplace issue. The World Health Organization called stress, not heart disease, cancer, or HIV, the ‘health epidemic of the 21st century’.

 

The Echo Pandemic

 

Fast forward to present day, amidst a pandemic without an end date in sight, and these problems of yesterday are still there, but they’re met with new, urgent, compounding issues that have led to what many have termed the echo pandemic.

That is: a widespread mental health epidemic that follows COVID-19 but resembles it in scale.

 

Frighteningly enough, we’re already starting to see the implications. Nearly 7-in-10 employees indicated in a survey that COVID-19 is the most stressful time of their entire career, which aligned with stark increases in new prescriptions, antidepressants, anti-anxiety, and anti-insomnia medications. Alcohol and cannabis consumption have spiked. And according to a recent study from The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre, rates of depression have reached levels never before seen (or recorded).

“What our results actually show is that regardless of where they started with a specific diagnosis, everyone seems to be getting worse in terms of their depression and anxiety. It affects nearly everyone,” said Rébecca Robillard, director of clinical sleep research at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre.

Like everything with COVID-19, employers have had to adapt fast to address the urgency of this need. Where many mental health programs involved in-person training previously, its sped up the need for employers to go digital and get educational tools in employees’ hands at scale.

“We’ve seen huge movement to digital, specifically mobile, during this pandemic phase,” said Dr. Ryan Todd, Psychiatrist at Foothills Hospital and CEO of headversity. “Usership on our headversity platform has gone up over 1000% since March this year. While we can’t connect that all to COVID-19, it has certainly been a catalyst and a resource that North American employers have turned to in order to meet the growing need right now.”

But, while the situation seems dire, workplace mental health advocates would argue this moment, with more attention on workplace mental health than ever before, is a great opportunity to get it right, once and for all.

 

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