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‘Businesses are sleepwalking into a mental health crisis’: COVID is pushing workers to the brink, new study shows

·4 min read

Your work colleagues may be in trouble.

As the pandemic rages outside, feelings of anxiety, depression, loneliness, burnout, and stress continue to grow inside an increasing number of workers.

In the U.K., a quarter of employees feel as if they have hit a psychological breaking point. According to a new study by health insurance company Lime Group, over half of those surveyed feel a pressure to disguise to their colleagues the sinking feeling that accompanies their difficulty in coping with both the stresses of the job and the stresses of the pandemic.

Lime calls the phenomenon “pleasanteeism,” which translates to putting on a brave face and presenting the very best versions of ourselves when returning to the workplace. Apparently, they are not even doing a very good job of fully masking the anxiety. Almost one in five copped to feelings that colleagues knew they were hiding something deeper.

The study finds “pleasanteeism” can be corrosive in a workplace. At its worst, such denialism masks deep-rooted workplace issues, and it undermines efforts to promote an open dialogue about mental health in a work setting. To wit, roughly one in six (16%) of workers felt their mental health needs were being supported at work. Furthermore, over a third believe their employers don’t provide them with enough general support.

Unsurprisingly, 40% say they will look for a new job if their employers don’t do more. That figure jibes with other studies showing employers could be seeing the great exodus once offices reopen in the coming weeks and months.

“Businesses are sleepwalking into a mental health crisis,” the Lime study concludes.

The situation is likely to get worse as the pandemic continues; four in 10 feel less resilient now than they did before the pandemic began. Findings from the report found that simple initiatives, such as employers being mindful about workload and work/life balance, having greater flexibility in working hours, and providing time off to deal with personal commitments and for overall mental health, would go a long way toward improving the well-being of employees.

There is no “one size fits all” approach to creating an open culture of mental health, says Emma Mamo, head of workplace well-being at Mind, a U.K.-based mental health charity, “but regularly communicating and providing opportunities for staff to talk about any issues they’re facing” are vital. She adds that employers should also survey staff to understand the causes behind poor mental health and try to mitigate them.

“It’s only by drawing attention to and prioritizing mental health in the workplace that we can support one another to be as healthy, resilient, happy, and productive as possible,” notes Shaun Williams, founder and CEO of Lime, in the study.

Mental health awakening

If any silver lining can be drawn from the COVID crisis, it’s that more and people—from Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles to Goldman Sachs junior bankers—are making the tough decision to choose mental well-being over the rigors of career-building.

In a 2020 study of 1,000 American workers, 80% said they would consider quitting their current position for a job that focused more on employees’ mental health. This was followed by the highest “quit rates” ever recorded in April and May of 2021, what some social scientists called the “Great Resignation.”

More recently, a McKinsey survey found that roughly one in three workers said the return-to-office shift negatively impacted their mental health with pervasive workplace stigma surrounding mental or substance-use disorders exacerbating the decline.

There is also a heavy economic toll. Depression and anxiety have a significant economic impact with an estimated cost of $1 trillion a year to the global economy in lost productivity, according to a report conducted by the World Health Organization. The WHO finds that for every dollar invested in scaled-up treatment for common mental disorders, there is a return of $4 in improved health and productivity.

In the Lime Group study, 44% of workers in the U.K. noted low personal resilience impacted their ability to do their job effectively, admitting poor mental health had resulted in unproductive days, lost concentration, mistakes, and calling in sick.

But some big companies are navigating the problem in the old-fashioned way: using money. Credit Suisse was reported to be handing out one-off $20,000 “lifestyle” bonuses to maintain morale among staff feeling the strain from heavy workloads and remote work, while the investment bank Jefferies gave away Peloton bikes worth around $2,000.

Update, Aug. 4, 2021: This post has been updated to include the quote from Emma Mamo of Mind.

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com