COVID-19 Shows us That Businesses Are Ill-Equipped to Deal with Employee Mental Health

In the past few years, my psychiatry practice has shifted from predominantly psychotherapy to helping people who are off work for mental health reasons.

After assessing over 500 such individuals in-person, as well as doing hundreds of reviews of medical files, I’ve noticed one significant fact: businesses are woefully ill-equipped at dealing with the mental health of their employees.

Some people go into their jobs with pre-existing mental health conditions, and these individuals are more vulnerable to decompensating under stress. Others have no history of mental health problems but they experience some type of stress in the course of their lives that can lead to mental health problems and impair their ability to do their jobs.

This stress can arise in their personal life or it can come from the workplace, in the form of a difficult colleague or manager who is making their life miserable and undermining their ability to perform optimally in the workplace.

empty office
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Businesses rarely know how to support their staff’s mental health

A lot of businesses don’t understand how to support their employees to keep them functioning optimally, whatever mental health problems they might be facing.

Business leaders often don’t have a good grasp on what causes mental illness and they rarely have a clear sense of how to help people to recover and continue working.

They also don’t know how to protect their workers from disturbed individuals in the workplace and how to deal directly with this particularly insidious source of stress.

Over the years, I’ve learned that there are two types of people at work who have mental health conditions: those who suffer internally and those who act out and make the others around them miserable.

woman stressed at work
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Employees with mental health issues can suffer in silence or act out against others

People who suffer internally will often end up going off work due to an inability to focus or concentrate; severe fatigue due to sleep problems; a lack of energy and motivation due to anxiety and/or depression; and sometimes, a sense of irritability or impatience.

These individuals need support from their management in order to return to work and be constructive and productive employees over the long term. Even better, they need support to prevent them from going off work in the first place.

People who act out in the workplace will often behave like bullies. They will sabotage the efforts of their colleagues and they’ll pit one co-worker against another; as supervisors, they might micro-manage, be hyper-critical or set up their staff to fail.

These individuals must be seen for what they are: highly destructive elements in the workplace. They inevitably lower morale and are most often bad for productivity.

These bullies are suffering from their own mental health conditions but they take out their anger on others, creating a toxic workplace environment. They need mental health help as much as anyone else if there’s going to be any chance for them to change their behaviour.

Unfortunately, many businesses don’t fully grasp the impact of these destructive individuals even though, like the old expression goes, one bad apple will spoil the whole bunch.

Bullying in the workplace
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Businesses hold on to toxic staff, even when it hurts productivity

For unclear reasons, many businesses are invested in retaining managers and supervisors, even when these people are making the workplace increasingly stressful for their staff, and even when it’s evident that staff turnover is sky-high and productivity is in a state of decline.

For equally unclear reasons, businesses often fail to recognize the mental health problems of their staff, even when it has a direct impact on the bottom line through absenteeism, presenteeism and significantly lowered productivity.

Most businesses rely on programs put in place by their insurance companies, such as Employee Assistance or online resources for mental health. Unfortunately, from my experience, these programs are less effective in helping those who suffer from more than a mild mental health condition.

Employee needing support from supervisors
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More help is needed for employees with mental health issues

For people who are dealing with moderate to severe mental health issues, a lot more help is needed, both in the moment and on an ongoing basis.

Mental health needs to be better understood and taken more seriously by businesses if the resources provided are going to be meaningful. The good news is that this change will demonstrate results in lowered absenteeism and presenteeism as well as in increased productivity.

Businesses need to understand that people who are suffering from mental health conditions need robust resources to deal with their problems. For this reason, businesses could consider investing in services like in-house counselors, available at all times to the staff to address whatever stressors they might be experiencing, whether personal or professional. This will lower absenteeism and presenteeism and increase productivity.

As well, businesses need to recognize the problem of having toxic individuals in the workplace and the negative impact they can have on the bottom line. Managers need to identify these individuals in their workplace and offer them counseling to see if their behaviour can change.

If these people are unwilling or unable to modify their behaviour, the business must seriously consider letting them go, as their continued presence in the workplace is destructive to the overall well-being of the company.

Businesses might need to work with employment lawyers to codify what makes a toxic employee or manager, as well as put in place new policies for dealing with such individuals.

Businesses can ask their insurance companies to provide funding for preventative psychotherapy: treatment that is offered before people are forced to go off work due to their mental health issues.

This preventative treatment could keep people at work, and save a considerable amount of money for both the businesses and the insurance companies in the long run.

Businesses could offer programs for their staff geared toward helping them develop better mental health hygiene. For example, they can offer courses in Mindfulness and in stress management on an ongoing basis.

Businesses can offer workshops in dealing with interpersonal conflict and in developing healthy communication. They can train managers in how to foster positive, productive work environments, and they can prioritize making their workplaces emotionally intelligent and mentally healthy.

The arrival of COVID-19 has increased the stress on businesses, whether small, medium or large. When people are under this kind of intense, ongoing stress, it is bound to have a negative effect on the mental health of workers.

The pandemic is showing us that businesses need to have effective strategies in place for dealing with the mental health of their employees before these people end up on disability. Otherwise, businesses risk suffering the consequences of decreased morale, lowered productivity, and a shrinking bottom line.

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Marcia Sirota

Marcia Sirota

Writer, speaker, MD, and author of the Short & Sweet Guides to Life book series