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Time for a corporate wellness revolution

Dr. Lindsay Jernigan, clinical psychologist and creator - Reboot e-course series

Business leaders took notice earlier this year when Nike, a giant amongst them, gave its employees a week off to boost mental health. Nike’s move countered the typical corporate party line that encourages employees to sacrifice wellness for company profit. The dominant corporate culture tells us to sacrifice sleep for productivity and boundaries for availability; self-sacrifice is admired as a sign of commitment. 

But the counter-intuitive reality is that the self-sacrificial workhorse culture is deleterious to both employee mental health and bottom lines. Wellness and organizational worth are not mutually exclusive—in fact they depend on one another—and it’s time to create a new corporate culture that recognizes how thriving businesses are the result of thriving individuals. We need a corporate cultural revolution.

To outgrow workhorse culture, business leaders must understand the startling organizational financial cost of poor mental health. Before the current pandemic-related surge of anxiety and depression, mental health conditions cost U.S. employers between $100 and $500 billion and 217 million days of lost work per year. Worldwide, depression and anxiety typically cost the global economy over US$1 trillion annually

Things have only gotten worse. Since 2019, the number of American adults reporting anxiety and depression rose from 11% to 42% . That’s almost half the American workforce, or over 97 million people. American workers are stressed and burnt out, pushing our systems of care to capacity. As a clinical psychologist I hear from people who have contacted 40 therapists without finding one with availability, and I have colleagues whose waitlists are over a year long. The full financial impact of this mental health crisis remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: if business leaders aren’t proactive in supporting employee mental health, then their organizations, like their people, will suffer.

Investing in personnel mental health pays off, with estimates suggesting a $3-$5 return for every dollar put in. And it’s not hard to see why. Good mental health among workers increases productivity, reduces benefit spending and absenteeism, and,  given that depression doubles an employee’s likelihood of leaving a job, reduces employee turnover. With the cost of hiring a new employee averaging about 33% of the employee’s salary, avoiding revolving door hiring is a huge financial incentive for companies to promote mental health.

Which brings us back to Nike. Does a simple week off solve the problem? Well…no. Unfortunately, for most people the positive effects of a vacation wear off in only a few days. Why? Because the hyper-competitive culture of self-sacrifice is still there when they get back. I sit with many clients who are burning out with weeks of vacation time rotting in their pockets because they fear they will fall behind in the promotion race, or at least the respect race, if they utilize it. The availability of time-off isn’t meaningful if employees are praised for not taking it, or are punished, explicitly or otherwise, when they do. Here’s some evidence that culture matters: The same vacation that doesn’t promote lasting mental health benefits in a work environment that doesn’t value wellness can create lasting regenerative effects in one that does.

So how do we change corporate culture to incorporate wellness, and specifically, mental health? 

1) Bust the norm that work is not the place to talk about mental health. The stigma that surrounds mental health fuels the notion that we shouldn’t “air our dirty laundry” or show “weakness.” My clients, entry-level personnel, managers, and CEOs alike, come in lonely, ashamed of their struggle, and certain that their pain will render them inadequate in the eyes of their colleagues. But mental health struggles are even more common in American adults than back pain. Just like our backs, our mental health is with us everywhere: at home, at a restaurant, at the gym…and at work. If we can talk about ergonomically correct chairs, we can talk about mental health interventions, too. No shame, no stigma, no false belief that having mental and emotional pain makes us ill-prepared to do our jobs. 

2) Mental health resources should be openly and readily available through the workplace, not just behind the closed doors of the Employee Assistance Plan therapists. Rather than being a response to a crisis, mental health resources should be part of a robust health benefits package that employees are incentivized to use. Resources can include apps to promote mindfulness, check-ins with mental health providers, psychoeducational workshops and connection groups. Mental health e-courses are also an efficient way to offer immediate skill-building and distress relief, and can be delivered at corporate events or distributed to individuals for private use. 

Create benefits specifically targeted to maximize mental health effects. For example, exercise is a powerful front-line defense against depression and anxiety; if benefits packages included access to in-house exercise classes for up to 20 hours per month, employers could expect to see an increase in productivity, creativity, attendance and longevity. Likewise, a sense of community and connection increases mental and emotional resilience; incentives to attend a monthly support group can increase teamwork, company loyalty,  job satisfaction, and mental health, all of which reduce costs and increase financial gains.

3) Leaders communicate values through their own actions. If  a CEO doesn’t model taking vacation, the anti-vacation culture is reinforced. If managers don’t listen empathically when an employee comes forward with a mental health concern, the stigma is reinforced. And if supervisors expect round-the-clock availability, the self-sacrificing workhorse culture is reinforced. It’s not enough to talk-the-talk when it comes to cultural change; leaders have to walk-the-walk. Provide forums for leaders to reflect on their personal value systems and debunk the false belief that success is born from needlessness. And teach leaders skills for compassionate listening so they can show up effectively when personnel come forward with mental health concerns.

4) Organizational values are also communicated through company policies, which should be evaluated for wellness impact. For example, institute policies to reduce after-hours communications. Mental health and self-esteem go up when we engage in work that feels meaningful and authentically aligned with our aspirations, so offer self-selected professional development opportunities and regular meetings with managers to assess professional goals and interests. And consider creating appealing outdoor spaces employees can retreat to for breaks or work sessions, because time outdoors reduces anxiety and leads to the release of “feel good hormones” like dopamine and epinephrine that help ward off depression. 

In a time when mental health problems are sky-rocketing, creating a corporate wellness culture is more important than ever. By giving employees a week off explicitly for mental health, Nike took a step in the right direction. They communicated that mental health matters and that they are willing to put money behind that value. This is a critical ingredient in what should be the future direction for corporate America: promoting thriving businesses by promoting healthy individuals. 

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