In Times of Crisis, Empathy and Compassion are Business Imperatives

July 24, 2020

In the era of COVID-19, an economic recession, and widespread social unrest, mental health is the next crisis we need to prepare for. Long before social distancing and isolation were the norm, supporting employee mental health and well-being has been a priority for many of America’s leading businesses. With the coronavirus pandemic, systemic racial inequality, and unemployment taking its toll on millions of Americans, mental health is not just a nice-to-do, but a business imperative.  

Adults spend more of their time working than performing any other activity. Of the in 157 million workg U.S. adults, roughly three in four employees (76%) indicate they have struggled with at least one issue that affected their mental health. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in five U.S. adults experience mental illness, and at least 8.4 million Americans provide care to a person with emotional or mental illness. While these numbers were alarming even before COVID-19, they are only likely to worsen as we begin to see the long-term impacts of the pandemic. 

A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 45% of U.S. adults said the pandemic has affected their mental health, with nearly one in five saying it has had a "major impact." While it is normal to experience some level of anxiety in the midst of a public health emergency, a review conducted by The Lancet suggests that long-term quarantine and social isolation can result in post-traumatic stress symptoms long after the crisis is over. There are also economic consequences—depression and anxiety cost the global economy an estimated $1 trillion each year in lost productivity.

For years, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation has partnered with companies and thought leaders, such as the National Council for Behavioral Health, to help businesses prioritize mental health as an integral part of their workplace culture and corporate social responsibility initiatives. We have also been tracking the corporate response to disasters for over a decade, and are encouraged by the record level of involvement from the business community on this important issue.   

As we plan for the long-term impacts of this pandemic – on businesses and on our physical and mental well-being – corporate leaders would benefit from leaning in and putting people and their well-being at the center of their efforts. Those that do will come out stronger on the other side. 

Here are a few of the ways that companies can support the mental health and well-being of their people and their communities:

Provide internal support for your employees

When in doubt, overcommunicate. Without the familiar water cooler conversation that was part of our old work days, managers, human resources (HR) leaders, and senior executives should find new ways to be in touch. Communication can vary from regular email communications to one-on-one check-ins, weekly town halls, and regular team meetings, and you should clearly and authentically articulate your company’s mental health and well-being benefits and support. 

Consider adding new benefits like access to well-being apps, virtual fitness and meditation classes, mental health education sessions, and virtual therapy sessions. Ensure that your resources are easy to find and understand. 

Encourage time off – despite barriers to travel, employees should be encouraged to take vacation days. Some companies, like Harry’s, are providing monthly “mental health days” to help employees turn off. 

Ask questions – ask your employees how they’re doing, not just what they are doing. Many employees may not be quick to answer during meetings but consistent surveys can help leaders better understand employee needs and use their input to help pave their organization’s path forward.  

Think Outside Your Four Walls

Faced with unprecedented challenges, society is relying on the private sector to lead in crisis now more than ever. As companies review their corporate social responsibility programs and community crisis response efforts, they could consider campaigns and partnerships that address the mental health needs of their communities and vulnerable populations like frontline workers. Consider collaborating with organizations like the Trevor Project or The Jed Foundation that are at the forefront of these efforts. Some companies like J&J have joined #FirstRespondersFirst, an initiative created to support health care professionals and frontline workers risking their health to help other people. 

Lean into Leadership

The levels of stress and anxiety around COVID-19 are impacting employees at all levels – from the front lines to the C-suites. With no separation between personal and professional lives, leaders can leverage their own voices and personal stories to create a culture that empowers employees to feel comfortable sharing and asking for support. Verizon Media CEO Guru Gowrappan has frequently spoken out on the importance of mental health, hosting virtual Q&A sessions to address employee concerns.

While the long-term mental health consequences of these converging crises remain to be seen, companies are uniquely suited to help. As we navigate the flattening of our mental health curve, more businesses can use this moment to lead with empathy, compassion and vulnerability—eroding the stigma of mental health along the way, and instigating important cultural shifts.