Derek Miller: Our private sector can lead us through pandemic mental health crisis

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Gary Herbert and Derek Miller at a news conference announcing the "Stay Safe to Stay Open" campaign in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020. The Salt Lake Chamber and Utah Department of Health will be asking businesses to public health best practices to fight COVID.

More than ever, CEOs, human resources directors and managers need information and tools to assess and improve the mental and emotional wellness of their employees. “Workforce Resilience Through Mental Fitness” is a new initiative, through the Salt Lake Chamber’s social impact foundation, Utah Community Builders, and is designed to help meet that need.

This initiative includes a new Suicide Prevention in the Workforce Employer Toolkit, created in partnership with the Utah Department of Health, Utah Department of Human Services, Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition, and NAMI Utah. While government, business and community leaders continue to work together to move our state toward recovery from COVID-19′s health and economic effects, we must also address our mental health and workplace well-being.

According to some recent national survey data comparing 2020 to 2019 among American adults: anxiety symptoms have tripled, depression symptoms have quadrupled, and 51% of adults said their mental health at work had become worse since the pandemic started. A majority of employees said they had no co-workers or supervisors they would feel comfortable confiding in regarding their mental health, and nearly a third of employees said they were afraid they could be fired or furloughed for disclosing a mental health challenge.

Now is a critical time to act for leaders in business, government and the community to prevent an ongoing and worsening mental health crisis in our workforce. To further this effort, the business community is holding a virtual event Thursday to showcase leaders ranging from clinical and research experts, CEOs, and other innovators in workplace mental wellness.

By focusing on “mental fitness” rather than simply a clinical view of “mental health,” we are normalizing and broadening the conversation to include all of us. Every business owner, middle manager and front-line employee deserves to work in an environment that fosters and supports greater mental fitness for all involved. We will focus on businesses because our workplace can have a significant impact on our mental and emotional well-being.

There are three key principles that can guide business leaders as they approach mental wellness in their workforce: awareness, attitudes and action.

First, business leaders can ensure they and their senior staff are educated on the latest research on the intersection between mental health and work. Our state of mental fitness impacts our work. This again is born out in the data, which shows that the pandemic has impacted employee motivation at work, team morale, productivity and stress. Conversely, the work environment can impact — positively or negatively — employee mental wellness.

Second, business leaders can work to remove any negative stigma surrounding mental health issues in their workplace. This can include everything from prominently posting about mental health crisis resources for employees, hosting employee trainings or discussion forums and creating ways for employees to safely give honest feedback about workplace wellness.

Third, business leaders can implement a plan of action to measure and improve employee mental fitness. Our Suicide Prevention in the Workforce Employer Toolkit includes a worksheet with simple steps to help employers get started. This includes things such as understanding your baseline of provided resources and general employee wellness, creating a plan of action and measuring efficacy as you move forward.

Because of the impact and reach of businesses in Utah, the private sector is positioned to help elevate the mental fitness of countless Utahns. In addition to the positive social impact of businesses participating in this campaign, there can also be a significant return on investment, which we will discuss at the Thursday launch.

Utah has an unparalleled economy — even amid a pandemic-induced recession. By implementing some simple yet important steps today, Utah’s business leaders can help ensure our workforce’s mental fitness and resilience are also unparalleled. This in turn will ripple through our families and communities, lifting up all of us to be better equipped to work together and defeat the pandemic. We can restore our economic strength and meet the challenges and opportunities of the future together.

For more information on the Workforce Resilience Through Mental Fitness campaign, visit the Salt Lake Chamber website to register and participate.

Derek Miller

Derek Miller is president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber.