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The conversation around mental health will only be normalized when employees feel safe to speak up, says Guru Gowrappan, the chief executive officer of Verizon Media. This will only happen when the commitment to mental health begins at the top, and trickles down to every leader and manager, becoming embedded in the organisation.

What began as a consequence of the Covid-19 outbreak is now a pandemic in its own right, as a mental health crisis that has spiralled across the globe. Amid higher anxiety levels and continued isolation, the UN has highlighted another disturbing trend. It cautions that people who coped well early on, are now increasingly at risk because of the ‘multiple stressors’ brought on by this crisis.

Many of these stressors have become entrenched in the new normal, shaping how we will live and work in the months or even years ahead. Talking to team members around the world only reinforces how vulnerable we remain, months after the crisis erupted.

The ongoing limitations and responsibilities of life in a pandemic are taking a huge toll on employees everywhere – they are parents juggling work and looking after children. They are caregivers to elderly family members. They are single, staying alone. All of this without the simple pleasures and routines of life, like a get-together with friends or coffee with colleagues.

Work from home is now a mixed bag. No one misses the long commutes. People value the flexibility and are grateful to be at home with their loved ones. But the way remote working has evolved through this crisis has resulted in employees never really disconnecting. 

Coping with elevated anxiety levels and burnout through circumstances that are anything but normal, is pushing people to the brink. Even before Covid-19, depression and anxiety were exacting a massive economic cost -- US$1 trillion per year in lost productivity to the global economy, according to the World Health Organisation in 2019. It is alarming to even imagine what the cost could be at the end of this pandemic. 

Traditionally, employees have feared opening up about mental health issues in the workplace. They have (rightly) believed it could affect their mobility in an organisation or even put their jobs at risk. This, unfortunately, closed the door to dialogue and thwarted a culture where employees could seek help without the pressure of judgment or action from managers and co-workers. 

It has taken a crisis of this magnitude to open that door again. A recent McKinsey survey in the US found that employees' mental health has become a top concern for 77% of employers in the months after the pandemic. With Covid-19 affecting ‘behavioural health’, enterprises are observing a negative impact on productivity. In Southeast Asia too, the focus is deepening on organisational mental health. In Singapore, an inter-agency group led by the ministry of manpower framed a timely advisory with practical suggestions on how employers can support the mental well-being of their employees through the pandemic. 

As leaders and managers, as co-workers, as fellow human beings, we have a renewed opportunity to reshape the narrative on mental health in our organisations, a step towards transforming how mental health is perceived in society, in our communities. 

An idea that is core to my personal value system and has guided me especially through this crisis, is ‘how can we do more -- human to human, human to something bigger and human to society?’ As we collectively look to expand our contribution, a good place to start is where we can. At Verizon Media, we prioritise mental health because it is core to our humanity and part of the impact we can have on society. But this impact can only grow outwards from a safe, supportive and stigma-free workplace for all our employees. 

The conversation on mental health can only be normalized when employees feel safe to speak up. That will only happen when the commitment to mental health begins at the top, but then percolates down to every leader and manager, becoming embedded in the organisation. Enterprises have to equally anchor their words with concrete action, offering the tools, support system and intervention that employees need, when and where they need it most, like free, 24/7 confidential crisis counselling support. 

The right policy interventions can be as empowering for employees to know that they are supported. One of the changes we introduced was offering 26 weeks paid leave for any employee diagnosed with Covid-19, helping employees feel less anxious around the possibility of infection and giving them the time to heal, both physically and mentally - post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) being one of the consequences Covid-19 patients are having to overcome. 

Understanding what we are dealing with and coming out of this together has shaped our response throughout. Experts such as physicians and mental health professionals regularly join the leadership team to answer questions from employees -- as leaders, it is important to acknowledge we don’t have all the answers, but that we are committed to finding them with help from the best. 

As enterprises acknowledge and find ways to respond meaningfully to the escalating mental health crisis, this is also the right time to build a supportive ecosystem that grows awareness and changes perceptions towards mental health internally. Our Neurodiversity Employee Resource Group (ERG) has emerged as a constructive force in this direction, equipping employees with valuable resources, community support and actively nurturing ‘neurodiversity advocates.’ Mental health first-aid training across our offices has created a deeper understanding among employees on how they can help colleagues in need. An awareness that is critical right now, when all of us have to act with empathy, because every team member is battling a different crisis. 

Being stronger from within has helped us grow our impact externally too. From building a more positive narrative through our #staywelltogether series in Singapore, to inspiring young sportspeople around the world to cope and stay on top of their game -- tennis legend Billie Jean King led the #WeKeepPlaying movement on Yahoo Sports, to encourage and motivate athletes to not give up. 

Now, more than ever, we need a coordinated effort to realize the theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day - Mental Health for All: Greater Investment, Greater Access. 

Leading with a human-centred approach will bring change that is lasting. How we respond now to the mental health challenge can take us forward, breaking down barriers and eliminating the stigma to create a more open, productive workplace. Or, it can set us back, leading to a higher cost for employees at risk right now and affecting long-term business sustainability. The choice is ours to make.

Guru Gowrappan is the chief executive officer of Verizon Media