I will begin with a confession. I began writing this article in late January. Then the pandemic hit, and to say “much has changed” seems like an understatement. The COVID-19 crisis drew us into a hurricane-force event – with all of us, from institutions to individuals, being tested in unprecedented ways. We were swept into a period of intense activity and decision-making, whether you were responsible for workforces or family members.
I am now picking this article up where I left off. The world has changed in some dramatic ways; the conversation around mental health and the post-pandemic future of work is more relevant today than it has ever been.
The pandemic has helped us rediscover what’s essential. We are forced, in these moments, to go deep and reflect. To reflect on why we do what we do, what really matters, what we want our legacy to be and where we spend our time. But, as we attempt to move forward, going back to the way things were would be an enormous lost opportunity – there is a future workplace and way of leading that has shown tremendous potential. This is something we can plan for.
I have three very active kids, all in their teens. In a few short years, my kids and yours will launch into the world of work. If it can change so dramatically in three months, imagine what it can do in five years.
Our current situation demonstrates the potential toll a crisis can take. Kids Help Phone, a 24/7 Canadian support service for young people in need of counselling, has seen a 300% increase in kids reaching out. An April 2020 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation points to 45 per cent of adults saying that the current crisis has affected their mental health, with 19 per cent saying it has had a major impact.
With luck, this will be a short-term phenomenon. But there are also long-run trends in technology and systems that are changing the very nature of work as we know it. If even half the predictions on the future of work come to pass, the typical workplace in 2020 and the typical workplace in 2030 will look a lot different. Expect more tech and more disruption. We’ve also learned at least two preliminary lessons from the pandemic: our future workplaces will prioritize and protect individual health like never before; and working from home will become a permanent feature of how we work.
Mental health is one of the great workplace challenges of our time, wherever that workplace will be. If the current pandemic has lessons not to be forgotten, one of them is this: for too long we’ve separated health and mental health. According to some reports, 450 million people struggle with mental health worldwide. Taking care of the mental health of our workforce should be a fundamental baseline for all companies.
The company I work for did exactly that. In late 2019, we partnered with Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) to generate research on mental health in the workplace and then translate it into a set of actionable recommendations for a Workplace Mental Health Playbook for Business Leaders.
Mental Health Week is the week of May 4th, in Canada, and as the focus on mental health continues across the globe, I am reminded of the importance of five simple recommendations coming from this guide ranging from creating a long-term mental health strategy, to training and support, to how to track your progress. Offering pragmatic advice organizations need to help address mental health is an important step in building mental health awareness, advocacy and action. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the time is now.
Our success in the post-pandemic, post-technological-transformation future of work will be defined as much by creativity, innovation and productivity as how we have taken care of the mental and physical resilience of employees – and post-pandemic, employees will rightly not stand for anything less. Individual resilience and empathy will help reinforce institutional endurance. Acting today will ensure the long-run future of work looks a lot brighter.
 Alan Kohll, “5 Ways To Support Your Employees’ Mental Health During A Pandemic,” Forbes, 20 April 2020,10:49EDT. https://www.forbes.com/sites/alankohll/2020/04/20/5-ways-to-support-your-employees-mental-health-during-a-pandemic/#af9a09968923. Kaiser Family Foundation, KFF Health Tracking Poll – Early April 2020: The Impact of Coronavirus on Life in America. 2 April 2020. https://www.kff.org/health-reform/report/kff-health-tracking-poll-early-april-2020/