A Blog by Jonathan Low


Oct 26, 2020

How Covid Has Exacerbated Mental Health Affects On Businesses And Employees

Unfamiliar routines, uncertain future employment or compensation, physical disassociation from colleagues and friends: all have contributed to a rise in stress, anxiety and other psychological affects in workplaces and organizations. 

The financial impact is still being tallied, but well-run enterprises are recognizing that in order to optimize future outcomes for businesses and the people who work in them, these issues must be addressed immediately in order to reduce longer term negative impacts. JL

Nigel Wilson reports in Forbes:

Covid has raised personal stress and anxiety. The upheaval of normal routines and activities, the stresses on families and relationships and the rise in job loss and economic insecurity have led to soaring levels of loneliness, depression, alcohol and drug misuse, self-harm and suicidal behavior. For many, mental health and wellbeing is a primary reason to come in to the office if being isolated at home is having a negative effect. Mental ill-health exacts a huge cost on businesses, through sick days and the lost productivity of “presenteeism,” going to work despite illness, injury or anxiety. A study quantified the cost of this at £45 billion ($58.8 billion) annually.Covid-19 has unquestionably raised the level of personal stress and anxiety worldwide. Beyond the obvious and sometimes fatally tragic impact on those who caught the virus, there are multiple secondary health impacts which are no less serious. Here I want to discuss the mental health repercussions in particular, though certainly in terms of physical health, some of the biggest concerns have been around delays in diagnosing cancer and other conditions—delays which, according to research published in The Lancet, will result in thousands of additional deaths in the U.K., likely more in the U.S.

Placing aside these tangible and measurable physical health problems for a moment, our mental health has been threatened on a mass scale by the very measures intended to keep us physically safe, in particular quarantining—a necessary but difficult remedy. Because of the resulting upheaval of normal routines and activities, the stresses on families and relationships and the rise in job loss and economic insecurity have led to soaring levels of loneliness, depression, harmful alcohol and drug misuse, self-harm and suicidal behavior. We need to learn from history, because this has happened in previous epidemics—for example, in communities affected by Ebola there was widespread panic and anxiety, depression resulting from the sudden deaths of close ones, and social isolation and stigmatization of survivors.

In the U.S., these mental health problems, emblemized by the opioid crisis, have reached frightening proportions during Covid. Contrary to what should be happening in a wealthy nation, Americans’ life expectancy has fallen, for the first time since the Spanish Flu pandemic of 100 years ago, for three years in a row. In the past two decades especially, mortality rates have been steadily rising among both men and women from mental health-related causes like drug abuse, alcoholism and suicide, with over one million deaths between 2006 and 2015

The World Health Organization recently called for a renewed focus on mental health as an important determinant in how we recover from the pandemic. Good mental health helps society function well and is part of recovery even in normal times; at this supercharged time of isolation and difficulty, it will become even more important in our successful adaptation, along with breakthroughs in testing, tracking, and vaccination as they become available. It goes without saying that the quality of our mental health will also affect our productivity and our economic recovery.

Addressing the decrease in life expectancy for working class white Americans between 45 and 54, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, in their book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, posit that the likely cause of this public-health crisis is the erosion of well paid, steady, manufacturing jobs that provided meaning and dignity to life. They map out solutions for repairing a broken capitalist system in the U.S., such as fixing the healthcare system and providing a better safety net. 

I believe capitalism can do a great deal more, and have written a great deal on the need to rethink capitalism, to adopt a more inclusive capitalism that nevertheless doesn’t stray from the need for economic growth and producing a healthy return on capital invested, while creating opportunity for as many people as possible.  Nowhere is this clearer than in the need to create and finance solutions to the inequitable mental health situation we face; and to do that, we need to adopt a mindset that mental health is on equal footing with physical health as a social asset.

Improving mental health requires a people-to-people solution, so I want to talk about ways that we can connect with people at the larger regional and community level as well as at the interpersonal workplace level. There have been advances in use of digital apps to encourage better mental health and wellbeing.

Our view is that everybody has a given state of mental health just as they do physical health. Like physical health, mental health (not to be confused with mental ill-health, which is the general default meaning when people are talking about mental health) is on a spectrum. (And I’d argue it’s more bell curve than linear, but that’s another matter.)  At one end you have diagnosed conditions of the more severe variety, such as schizophrenia, clinical depression, etc., and on the other end, the mental health equivalent of a triathlete, with most of us somewhere along the bell the curve, give or take daily variations. The right digital tools can help move us along the curve, for example, using mindfulness tools to temporarily relieve anxiety or a low mood, improving our diet and sleep patterns, and so on.

In the bigger picture, through surveys we conducted this past summer we discovered that the U.K. was becoming more community-minded, more inclined to volunteer and donate, as an outcome of Covid—something I wish we had learned from America long ago. As a company, one of the ways we’re aligning with this trend is by backing a major research project on aging—surely a key societal component of mental health—at the University of Edinburgh. Our $26 million grant to seed the Advanced Care Research Centre has now been equally matched by other donors. We in turn have a program in place for matching for our employees’ charitable activities. It’s clear that volunteer activity can have huge benefits both for the giver and the receiver, so I hope this tendency persists long after Covid.

On a more immediate and personal level, we have been doubling down on explicitly recognizing the mental health impacts for our people working under lockdown and other restrictions. We factor in the individual circumstances of employees and their varying levels of productivity or ability to work from home—for example, if they lack a reliable WiFi connection, or have domestic circumstances like apartment shares that leave no good place from which to work at home. Alongside these physical factors, we now also recognize categorically that for many people, mental health and wellbeing is a primary reason to come in to the office—regardless of the job being done—if being isolated at home, perhaps in a difficult relationship, is having a negative effect on you as an individual.

Indeed, I’ve been proud to see our employees supporting each other through the pandemic, by keeping in closer touch than they would do normally through team sessions and check-in calls. I’ve actually received feedback comments such as, “Work has been my lifeline.”

In terms of treatment, telemedicine has been given a huge boost by Covid, and one thing we can all do is work to make sure that this applies equally to mental as well as physical health—not just in the workplace but at home and in care settings, too. Though virtual meetings will never fully measure up to in-person appointments, we are finding that technology is helping to make a difference with mental health. During these past months, we’ve adopted an online mental health and wellbeing app—ours is called Unmind, but there are others—and have rolled it out to employees. Our mental health first aiders are working well online and our employee helpline has stepped up in the face of the pandemic.

Inclusive capitalism, investing for broader societal benefits while producing high return, also plays a fundamental role in the maintenance of good mental health. Mental ill-health exacts a huge cost on businesses, through sick days and the lost productivity of “presenteeism,” going to work despite illness, injury or anxiety. A Deloitte study commissioned by the U.K. government and released back in January quantified the cost of this at £45 billion ($58.8 billion) annually, up 16 percent since 2016. Investing in employee well-being is as much about the good of the whole ecosystem as it is about the individual within that system.

Health, both physical and mental, is inextricably intertwined with economic recovery—or, as Deaton and Case delineate in their book, health equals wealth. One initiative we are supporting is the Trinity Challenge—a competition calling for proposals on how to be better prepared for the next pandemic, to be funded by a global coalition of academic institutions, philanthropic organizations, and businesses. Challenge entries are now open, and as far as I’m aware, no entries have focused on mental health aspects; perhaps someone reading this would like to set that ball rolling.

Another thing we can do collectively is make sure we don’t lose, but rather take advantage of, some of the positive aspects of Covid… and believe it or not, there are some positives. For example, we saw, suddenly, widespread appreciation of the work done by key workers, especially those in healthcare and first responders. We have the chance to highlight specifically the valuable contribution made by those working in mental health, as well.

This is a time of uncertainty and for many people, of interruption – to routines, to social support and family life, to job security and income. The effects are felt most by the disadvantaged, including those with mental health issues—and sadly, these effects will persist. I suspect they are particularly difficult for younger people. I was shocked reading a Samaritan’s Survey of 70,000 adults which suggested that 2 percent reported self-harming or attempting suicide in the first week of lockdown alone. It is now more than seven months later; this is not something we should ignore.

We need to make use of this moment—a sort of pause created by the pandemic—to pay closer attention to mental health, to continue to work to erode the stigma of mental ill health, and to place it somewhere closer to parity, in the eye of societal estimation, with physical health.


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