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Out Of The Shadows And Into The C-suite: Mental Health And The Workplace

By Barby K. Siegel, CEO

Man praying

Once relegated exclusively to whispers in the hallway far away from the boss, mental health has become one of the most pressing issues for CEOs and their leaders to address, as broader movements to bring such conversations to the mainstream have grown. 

While some organizations had already been on the forefront of employee mental health and well-being prior to 2020, last year’s myriad health and society-altering events gave mental well-being new urgency as a workplace priority. Most of us know someone who has been directly affected by a mental health issue, such as anxiety, depression, or suicide. And last year, it was evident to many that our employees were struggling emotionally like never before -- there were long, dark days of the pandemic, overwhelming new responsibilities at home, and a surge of social unrest amplified by violence.  

Mental health is also the latest workplace issue to confront Chief Communications Officers (CCOs), who for years have been on the front lines of crafting internal and external approaches for an array of challenging topics that impact employee morale and productivity, such as sexual violence and harassment, racial and gender inequities, social justice, DE+I and politics. Now, CCOs and agency leaders are faced with yet another delicate and deeply personal issue at the intersection of business and societal realities.

According to a recent survey of CCOs conducted as part of the Page Society’s Spring Seminar on ‘Resilience in an Era of Pervasive Change,’ almost all acknowledge that talking openly about mental health in the workplace is extremely important. By contrast, only 26% of those surveyed think their company is “doing everything it can” to address the issue.  When asked about the CEO’s role, 85% say it’s very important for the CEO to specifically address employee mental health and well-beingwhile less than three quarters (74%) say their CEO currently prioritizes employee mental health and well-being. 

Clearly, we are still in the early stages of normalizing conversations about mental health in the workplace. Only 4 out of 10 CCOs surveyed say they are receiving a lot of support, guidance, and resources to address mental health and well-being issues, while 67% said one of the biggest challenges in fostering an open dialogue is “employee concern about judgment and potential negative impact on their career.“ The most important resources as identified by the CCOs in order to effectively address matters of mental health are: complete C-suite involvement (33%), a dedicated medical/mental health advisor to help with proper language (22%) and resources from an accredited mental health organization. A place to direct people to get information, and training for sensitive conversations were also noted.

While 2020 is a year many of us would like to forget, it did underscore – and this is consistent with the rising focus on mental well-being – that long after the pandemic is gone, our employees and stakeholders will remember how we did (or did not) lead with compassion. And they will never forget how we made them feel by the actions we took and the efforts we made to understand how they were coping. These experiences also taught us a great deal about who we are and what matters, and what it means to care for people in our charge. Employees, especially the younger generations, expect their employers to care for them as humans and all that encompasses. They had that expectation even before 2020, and this is here to stay. 

As stewards of corporate reputation and a voice of conscience within a companyCCOs are uniquely positioned to ensure we don’t lose sight of the need for more open and direct dialogue around mental health and well-being. I hope the human kindness we witnessed during the pandemic will remain a lasting and powerful force in the workplace, for ourselves and for those who rely on us to do the right thing.