This article was originally published by Fast Company here.
If you’re fortunate enough not to be among those directly impacted by the mental health crisis in the United States, you’ve still likely heard about, read about, and been concerned about its ramifications. Chances are that someone you work with, live with, or are related to is suffering from a mental health condition. And there is a very high chance that someone you work with is experiencing a mental health crisis in their family. Unfortunately, the likelihood that they are receiving the professional help they need is getting smaller.
Our company is one of the largest suppliers of behavioral health clinician services in the country. We work with thousands of professionals in all 50 states. And we have never seen demand for behavioral health services as high as it is today. Frighteningly, the number of people entering the behavioral health profession is not keeping pace.
We’re experiencing an unprecedented national shortage of psychologists, psychiatrists, licensed clinical social workers, and counselors, with estimates that by 2026, we will have 510,000 worker vacancies and at least 27 states unable to meet the demand. Practitioners are leaving the profession altogether in high numbers, and the pipeline of professionals coming into practice is dwindling, further contributing to the dismal forecast. After what our children have experienced over the last two years, it’s not surprising to hear that some of the highest demand is for specialists in child and adolescent psychiatry.
THE CONSEQUENCES ARE FAR-REACHING
There are serious implications for our country as we continue to struggle to connect people in need with care. The downstream effects will be felt in our hospitals and criminal justice systems. Innovations in telehealth and technologies that connect people to therapists through apps and texting are helping to bridge the gap, but in the short-term, people are struggling. And as a leader, you and the people you lead are being impacted.
According to research by goBeyondProfit, a statewide business alliance in Georgia, 30% of working Georgians surveyed said they will likely leave their jobs in the next six months, with 35% saying their mental health is playing a role in why they will look for a new job. In that same survey, 65% said they trust their employers to do what is right. And an incredible 75% trust their own employers to go beyond what is right and actually help solve the societal problems we collectively face.
Given all that we know about the Great Resignation and the massive shifts in employment statistics, I believe this snapshot of how workers in my home state feel is almost certainly representative of the country as a whole. This data underscores how much things have changed during the pandemic and brings to light the expectations the workforce is placing on business leaders to address problems.
The U.S. Surgeon General recently released a new framework for workplace mental health and well-being that “will require organizations to rethink how they protect workers from harm, foster a sense of connection among workers, show workers that they matter, make space for their lives outside work, and support their growth.” Given this formal set of recommendations, companies should evaluate their benefit plans to make sure they align with the needs of their employees. But perhaps more importantly, leaders should think about how they can personally contribute to the well-being of the people around them.
HOW LEADERS CAN TAKE ACTION
Following are four ways you can make a positive contribution to the mental health of the people you lead.
1. Create a sense of urgency when it comes to getting support. Help for emotional care is hard to find, so it’s easy to put it off, push your feelings down, or ignore the signs. Encourage the people in your life to take the time they need to find and access the care they are looking for, and do your part to eliminate the stigma related to seeking or receiving mental health care by positively acknowledging it.
2. Exhibit active empathy. It turns out that most CEOs—92%, according to a study by Ginger—believe that their companies are more focused on the mental well-being of their employees today than they were before the pandemic, but only 57% of employees agree that’s true. Purposefully take in the signs from people you work with—look for signals of stress and pay attention when someone’s affect is “off.” Make space, create a safe place to talk about it, and ask “How are you, really?” When you create a space where someone can share, you can validate their struggle and affirm their way forward.
3. Model—and mandate—that the people you work with take the time to disengage from the stress of work. It’s not healthy to work from home during your paid time off, and your team needs to both have permission themselves and give permission to their team members to be away and truly disconnect. It’s better for business, and it’s best for their health and well-being.
4. Help people create space in their jobs to power down and disengage from the busyness of every day. Break the rhythm of meetings by creating opportunities for “white space”—that time spent without commitments that allows you to daydream and open your mind to different possibilities. Modeling that behavior yourself can reinforce the notion that you don’t have to appear busy to indeed be successful.
Solving the shortages in behavioral health care, building back the pipeline of those coming into the profession, and making care available and accessible to everyone will take quite some time. But until then, do your part as a leader to model, demonstrate, and respond to the needs of those around you in ways that can ease the struggles that so many face.