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The C-Suite Needs an Empathy Injection, Stat Let's destigmatize mental-health problems in the workplace, which cost companies billions of dollars a year, and instead invest in supporting and retaining employees.

By Naveen Bhateja Edited by Amanda Breen

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

At the time of this piece being written, it is nearly 18 months since the initial onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in March of 2020. Throughout this time, the mental and emotional toll of the pandemic on virtually every global industry and market has forced us to reflect on the correlation between workplace productivity and the mental health and wellbeing of employees.

Despite being heavily stigmatized throughout history — due in large part to a collective social ignorance of many causes and symptoms of various conditions — conversations surrounding mental health, particularly regarding employees in the workplace, have become far more prominent in recent years. The Covid-19 pandemic is simply the latest driving force behind this dynamic shift. Employers are beginning to slowly, yet steadily, recognize that the wellness resources they provide employees can have a significant impact not only on the employees themselves, but also on the overall health, wellbeing and even public perception of their organization.

Through increasing the quantity and quality of mental-health resources, as well as employees' accessibility to them, C-suite executives and other organizational leaders can both attract and retain more talented employees and mitigate the costs associated with lessened productivity, health insurance for their employees and more. When employers prioritize the health and wellbeing of their employees, where one can ask for help without being judged, their organization gains a strong competitive advantage — one desperately needed in today's ever-evolving world.

Related: 4 Lessons I Learned Coping With Depression in the C-Suite

The pandemic is the latest in a long line of stressors

While conversations surrounding mental health and wellbeing are more common today than in previous years, mental health is still heavily stigmatized throughout modern society in ways both direct and indirect, such as the barriers that exist in accessing mental healthcare. Prior to the pandemic, roughly one in every eight visits to hospital emergency rooms was related to mental health. With hospitals overflowing with Covid-19 patients and exhausted staff, this go-to option became impossible for many.

For many of those in the workplace, the pandemic only served as the latest in a long line of stressors that negatively affected their mental health and performance in the workplace. Even prior to the pandemic, as a result of factors including absenteeism, turnover rates, insurance fees and diminished productivity (among others), the American Institute of Stress estimates job-related stress cost businesses some $300 billion annually. This statistic is expected to increase as more analytical data is collected and studied regarding the true lasting impact of the pandemic. History has shown that the mental-health impacts of any disasters outlast the physical impact, thereby suggesting that both short and long-term implications of mental health as a result of this pandemic will continue well beyond the pandemic itself.

One disparaging statistic related to the pandemic's onset is the increase in suicides resulting from the stress it has caused. Public-health actions such as social distancing are necessary to prevent the spread of Covid-19, but they can make people feel isolated and lonely. Though elongated periods of social isolation and lack of interaction with others are two contributing factors to this, periods of economic stress and financial uncertainty are some of the highest contributors to this increase, especially in those who find themselves unemployed during those times. For example, studies on the impact of the Great Recession of the late 2000s found that suicide risk increased for unemployed people by some 20 to 30% between 2000 and 2011.

Related: We Need More "Chief Mental Health Officers.' Here's How to Become One.

The pandemic has likewise disproportionately impacted the health of communities of color, and many parents are experiencing ongoing disruption and changes to their daily lives.

Data from Oracle states that an overall 70% of employees believe that 2020 was the most stressful year of their lives. Furthermore, some 76% of all employees believe that their employer not only could, but should, do more to protect their mental health. With one in every five of adults in the U.S. expected to experience some form of mental illness every year — and only one in every three receiving proper treatment for their ailment — it's no surprise that both employee performance in the workplace and the health of the organization overall suffer when mental illness and employee wellbeing are ignored.

Business leaders and executives must act now

According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), anxiety and depression are believed to have a significant economic impact with some $1 trillion lost annually due to lessened workplace productivity resulting from these mental illnesses. The silver lining here, however, is that WHO also found for every $1 invested towards scaling treatment for these illnesses and other mental disorders, there is a four-fold ROI due to improved feelings of health, wellness and productivity.

As business leaders and executives, we simply can't continue to brush conversations and social stigmas surrounding mental health under the rug. Companies that continue to do so will continue to lose millions of dollars each year. Rather, businesses looking to grow and succeed at all levels in today's mental health-conscious society will need to implement and utilize the assistance of wellness officers (or chief mental health officers) and invest in programs that promote the mental health and wellbeing of their employees.

While the long-term impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has yet to be fully understood, and likely won't be for a number of years in the future, the short-term impact it has had on the mental health and wellbeing of employees is clear — as are the benefits of investing in ways to promote it within the workplace. When we, as leaders, are able to forego the historic stigmas surrounding mental health or illness and integrate solutions to address these issues at all levels of our organizations, we are able to create a better and more sustainable solution to improve the productivity, growth and success of our organizations themselves.

Related: The First Step to Achieving Work-Life Balance? Stop Calling It That.

Naveen Bhateja

EVP and Chief People Officer, Medidata Solutions

Naveen Bhateja, EVP and chief people officer at Medidata Solutions, leads all aspects of the company’s global human resources. As a member of the company’s senior leadership team, he is a business strategist and trusted advisor on how people strategies empower successful business outcomes.

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