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  • Andrew Stephenson

Why 2021 Corporate Wellness Initiatives Need to Center on Mental Fitness.

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

  • Smart organizations will put proactive mental health strategies at the core of their 2021 employee wellbeing initiatives.

  • Psychological models indicate we are likely in the midst of our lowest emotional points in relation to the pandemic.

  • While optimism grows in hopes of the coming vaccines, the reality is that the vaccines will not mean an immediate return to normality.

To say 2020 and the pandemic have taken a toll on mental health is obvious. As our optimism for 2021 grows on the back of promising progress towards a vaccine, we would be remiss in thinking that the need for mental health support will wane anytime soon.

The truth is, the worst mental health impact from the pandemic is likely still to come. Psychological models (see Figure 1, indicating we are likely in the early and lowest stages of “disillusionment”; read full details here) mapping the emotional toll of significant community disasters suggest we are just now likely hitting the low point, from which it will take some time, likely a majority of 2021 to emerge.

Throughout 2020 we’ve had ups and downs, but the prolonged nature of the pandemic and resultant delayed onset of burnout is now hitting home. The double whammy that may occur over the next couple of months is that the build-up of pandemic fatigue is coupled with the emotional toll of what is predicted to be our biggest and most severe surge, capped by an inability to share normal holidays with friends and family.

You’re probably familiar with (or sick of hearing about) the rates of anxiety and depression having tripled in 2020 (this is from multiple sources, the most recent being this study from BU). Overcoming that doesn’t just happen with a new year’s resolution. It takes a deliberate approach to manage thoughts and behaviors along with clinical intervention where warranted.

In the meantime, businesses absorb the brunt of the cost impact. According to the WHO, “Depression and anxiety have a significant economic impact; the estimated cost to the global economy is US $1 trillion per year in lost productivity.” Bear in mind that is assuming rates of depression and anxiety that are pre-pandemic… that is, three times lower than they are right now.

Much of the cost burden is silent. It’s estimated as many as half of people suffering from mental health illnesses do not seek help. However, the WHO also suggests that “Workplaces that promote mental health likely reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and benefit from associated economic gains.” While many people may not admit to struggling mentally, it is almost certain that your collective workforce is currently performing at a sub-optimal level. Do you simply ride it out, or do you take action to fast-track the recovery process and gain the economic advantage sitting in between?

What does supporting employee mental health mean though? For most organizations, it simply means campaigns and awareness-raising for clinical interventions. Trying to reduce stigma and urge people who identify symptoms to seek help. For sure, that’s important, but it doesn’t maximize the true value. The real potential is not just reducing the impact of the worst illnesses in some of your population, but instead promoting the potential gains of optimal mental health across the majority of your population. Particularly now, when more employees than ever are suffering varying degrees of fatigue and burnout. While some likely need clinical intervention, there is also a huge proportion who don’t need clinical intervention but could still improve significantly with deliberate proactive resilience and mental fitness activities. Instead of just trying to plug the leak of clinical-level burdens, why not lift the performance of your entire workforce?

In modern business, mental focus, innovation, and creativity are fundamental to success, making it critical to have employees who are engaged, enthusiastic, and invested in their work. This can’t be achieved unless people are healthy - both physically and mentally - as well as feeling a strong connection or sense of purpose linked to their work. Overtly showing that your organization and its leaders care for your people can significantly enhance these foundations of optimal engagement and performance.

While most organizations have some form of health and wellbeing program, very few have programs that effectively engage their population or effectively link and support true physical and mental wellbeing. Most organizations offer health programs in the periphery, afterthoughts, rarely engaging more than 20-30% of their workforce. To be genuine, you need to bring these programs out of the shadows and help employees understand the clear alignment between optimally functioning people and sustainable high-performance. Make it a collective vision that your organization's growth will be underpinned by growth within your people.

Regardless of the type of health and wellbeing program you have in place, now is the time to ensure that the promotion of proactive mental fitness and resilience becomes a core, consistently reinforced component of your 2021 strategy.

If you need assistance with lifting the performance of your health promotion and workforce wellbeing initiatives, HBD is the industry leader in sustained health program engagement and measured behavior change. We have a number of dedicated programs that specifically target mental fitness, resilience, and high-performance for both executive teams as well as total work populations.


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