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Psychological Safety and Corporate Responsibility in the midst of the COVID Pandemic
by Ngozi Weller
17 November, 2020
Last week the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP), an advisory body which represents the UK’s 18,000 practitioners, warned the government that if measures were not taken to provide nation’s mental health services with additional support proportionate to the growing need for their care, then the country could find itself facing a post-COVID mental health crisis. They cited the dramatic increase in the volume of people attending emergency departments and presenting to crisis mental health services, as well as a general increase in the severity of those presenting with some form of mental health disorder. In June, the RCP surveyed 389 psychiatrists, and of this number 46% reported a rise in emergency interventions, and an additional 55% an increase in the urgency of these interventions.
These figures do not exist in isolation, the trends that were reflected in the RCP’s report are substantiated by the majority of Mental Health reports conducted during the COVID pandemic. In June, a survey by the Office for National Statistics revealed that almost one in five adults (19.2%) were likely to experience some form depression during the COVID pandemic, an increase of 100% from their pre-COVID levels which stood at about one in ten (9.7%). Only last week, in an exclusive interview with Sky News the Martin Gallier Project, a mental health charity, revealed that the number of individuals that they are supporting through major depressive episodes has also more than doubled from its pre-COVID levels, rising from 400 cases between February 2019 and February 2020 to 1,024 cases in the last nine months alone.
Moreover, one of the most significant aspects of this national trend is that this rise in psychiatric conditions is occurring across the board, the COVID-19 pandemic has raised the ‘new psychiatric disorders’ risk, with many individuals who have never previously suffered from any form of mental illness being diagnosed with anxiety, depression, or insomnia. The pandemic is not simply triggering those with pre-existing or previous mental health conditions, but rather it is also generating mental health conditions in those who have never before experienced them.
A recent study reported that one in five COVID-19 survivors will be diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder within 90 days of their recovery and that one in seventeen of those patients would be diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder for the first time. Researchers are still speculating about the cause of this connection, from the impact on the individual’s physical health, to the drugs prescribed to treat disorders, but whatever the connection is, it is clear that there is one. The UK currently stands at 1.34 million reported cases of COVID-19, if the maths is to be believed, then that’s 268,000 COVID related psychiatric diagnoses, notwithstanding the thousands that have surely been impacted by lockdown-based isolation, and/or general anxiety regarding their health, finances, friends, and family. In this light, it is not one pandemic we are facing, but two, COVID-19 is leaving behind a legacy of mental health problems.
In view of these national changes, businesses must adapt their employee mental health services to account for this significant uptake in mental ill health, or risk significant losses. The cost of mental ill-health to UK employers is something that I’ve discussed several times over the past year, and each time I do there is more and more evidence to corroborate what I’m saying. The most recent study, published by Deloitte in January, places the cost to UK employers at around £45 billion per year, however, if we look to the general trend towards an increase in psychiatric disorders since March, the post-COVID cost will likely be considerably higher.
Companies can no longer treat mental health like a game of whack-a-mole, providing targeted support as and when the need pops up.
This staggering figure is formed of several aspects, and whilst some of it can be attributed to obvious costs, such as employee sick leave, in practice it is the subtle, cumulative costs of decreased productivity and absenteeism that make up most of this loss. The most dangerous assumption that employers can make when it comes to addressing mental health in their workplace, is to assume that it’s a discussion that is only relevant to a small section of the workforce, that mental health services are only there to support a handful of critically ill individuals as and when they need it. This attitude is dangerous because it is entirely disconnected from reality, the 2017 Stevenson and Farmer review found that 3 in every 5 employees experience mental health issues because of work and that 31% of the UK’s workforce is formally diagnosed with a mental health condition. Moreover, these already considerable figures have likely increased in line with the COVID trends I discussed earlier. The ‘cost of mental health’ to UK businesses isn’t a figure that is being formed by the critical ill health of a handful of employees, but rather the pervasive, low-level suffering of much of the country’s workforce. This cost is being formed on the backs of employees who are coming into work each day and only managing to utilise 75%, 50%, maybe 25% of their potential because they’re suffering from insomnia, or a period of increased anxiety and their personal and professional support systems just aren’t doing enough to help them. If we add COVID back into the mix and recognise that this pandemic is generating psychiatric disorders and mental ill-health in thousands of individuals who have never experienced anything of the sort, then it becomes entirely clear that this outdated approach to mental health must be discarded. Companies can no longer treat mental health like a game of whack-a-mole, providing targeted support as and when the need pops up. When over 60% of the workforce is facing mental ill health, adopting a pervasive, holistic approach is the only reasonable way to go about tackling the problem.
If employers are to effectively address the workplace’s rising mental health crisis, then they must begin treating mental health support, not as a first aid kit, but as an environment that ought to be cultivated. To explore what exactly constitutes this, I would like to discuss ‘psychological safety’, a term which refers to the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, mistakes, or concerns. Psychological safety is a phenomenon that is important to discuss, particularly in times of crisis, as a crisis can trigger a range of psychological responses, heightening an individual’s sensitivity and distress. Landscape-scale crises, as such the COVID-19 pandemic, can create mass scale trauma, whilst at the same time weakening our usual support systems through a combination of fear and isolation. Hence, cultivating an environment of psychological safety during COVID and beyond is a significant part of providing your strained workforce with a safe space in which to operate, and will likely allow them to work more productively.
To achieve an environment of psychological safety, a business must provide their workers with a visible and caring leadership, a leadership which is tuned in to its workforce. In so far as mental health support goes, this involves incorporating it into all aspects of business, training line managers to have open and honest conversations about mental health with their staff, which in turn empowers these individuals to identify the red flags of burnout so that they can signpost it quickly, and develop preventive strategies to reverse the impacts of stress. These actions, coupled with awareness training, will serve to destigmatise the issue of mental health at work, and put employees in a position wherein they feel comfortable asking questions and raising concerns. Adopting this holistic and proactive approach to mental health support is more than a corporate responsibility, it is a necessity, as any business which fails to adapt to the current climate will not weather the coming storm.
At Aurora Wellness we are all about mental wellbeing & productivity. To discover ways in which you can empower your people and maximise their full potential, contact us for information about our face to face and online mental wellbeing and productivity programmes.