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Business leaders must recognize it's OK not to be OK

Executives should prioritize employees' mental health, which recent studies suggest are negatively affected by the climate crisis.

People (with only forehands and hands showing) sitting around a work table. The top poster (on a stack of posters) on the table displays the words "mental health."

Depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy approximately $1 trillion in lost productivity, according to the World Health Organization. Image by Shutterstock/



Companies around the world are becoming increasingly aware of mental health issues. This is not restricted to the impact on their employees, but also encompasses other stakeholders such as customers, suppliers, shareholders and others in their communities.

The stress, fear and isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic brought this difficult subject out of the darkness and into the public spotlight. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported earlier this year that anxiety and depression rates rose by 25 percent in the first year of the pandemic. That is a lot of global anguish.

According to a McKinsey report, more than one-third (36 percent) of employees had negative mental health effects when they came back to work in the office. For those who are still working remotely, just under half (49 percent) are nervous about returning, feeling that it will have a negative impact on their mental health.

This year, World Mental Health Day fell on Oct. 10. For those living in Canada, that was also Thanksgiving. That is a day for large, happy gatherings of friends and family, but also a day of loneliness and depression for others, just as Christmas can be.

The WHO’s rallying cry for this year is: "Make mental health & well-being for all a global priority." And that rallying cry should apply to board directors and senior business executives, too, as well as how they address mental health in their companies.

The cost of overlooking mental health

There is a lot of work for companies to do in this area. The June index published by LifeWorks, a human resources company that TELUS acquired in June for a cool $2.3 billion, revealed that 92 percent of Americans, 91 percent of Brits and 90 percent of Australians believe people with mental health conditions are treated differently at work. That in turn dissuades them from getting much-needed support in the workplace.

There is a monetary factor, too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that employee depression results in more than 200 million lost workdays each year. Those absences cost employers $17 billion to $44 billion. Worldwide, the invoice is even higher. The WHO reports that depression and anxiety disorders cost about $1 trillion in lost productivity.

Business leaders and board directors must realize that in today’s job market, their employees need and expect mentally healthy workplaces. A significant contributing factor to these mental health issues that leaders must pay close attention to is the effects of climate change. Significant data proves the linkage.

 A report from the American Psychology Association has pinpointed several areas:

  • Natural disasters caused by climate change "cause anxiety-related responses as well as chronic and severe mental health disorders"
  • Flooding and droughts trigger high levels of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Extreme weather events lead to increased reports of aggressive behavior and domestic violence 
  • In extreme heat, many people increase their alcohol consumption to cope with stress
  • That heat also causes increases in hospital and emergency room admissions for people with mental health or psychiatric conditions, because psychiatric medications affect the body’s ability to regulate heat
  • Population migration, food scarcity, loss of employment and loss of one’s social support network all have negative effects on mental health

Climate migration is already happening. Since 2008, an average of 20 million people have been forced to move every year because of extreme weather events. This year must be on course to top that number. We have had heatwaves and fires in India; droughts and agony across much of Africa; flooding in Australia; extreme heat in the European summer; and the terrible devastating flooding in Pakistan that United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called "climate carnage."

Aside from the physical destruction and loss of lives, the damage to the mental health of those affected is incalculable.

Feeling the heat from climate change has some darker implications, too. A recent study published by The Lancet examined how online hate speech rose rapidly once temperatures rose past 69.8 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the study’s lead author, Annika Stechemesser, we need to think of the effect of climate change everywhere, not just the big disasters.

"There are places where the social consequences of heat have not been discussed very thoroughly, especially around how we can live together as a society and deal with our wellbeing in the future," Stechemesser said in a recent interview.

Linking climate change and mental health

A WHO policy brief earlier this year connected the dots between climate change, mental health and poverty. Out of 95 surveyed countries, only nine had included mental health and social supports in their national health and climate change planning. Nearly 1 billion people around the world have mental health issues, but in low- or middle-income countries, only one in four have access to the crucial support services they need.

In Canada, a recent study by the BC Teachers Federation highlighted the widespread existential angst that climate change brings to people:

"Mental health issues that arise because of an awareness of climate change and the threat it poses to the planet and the future of humanity. This awareness can cause feelings of anxiety, sadness, and dread — even if they are not directly or indirectly affected by climate-related changes to the environment."

And let’s not forget young people here, in your companies, your families and in your communities. This worry about climate change and the planet’s future is most acute for them because it is their futures that lie ahead. The news they consume, from TikTok to online media, is increasingly saturated with stories of extreme weather events, death and destruction.

Business leaders and board directors can help. Here are four ways:

Invest in mental health programs: According to the World Economic Forum, companies get a $4 return on investment for every dollar spent on mental health care and initiatives in the workplace.

Share to show you care: Get actively involved in making mental health a priority for your company and employees. In doing so, create open, psychologically safe spaces for people to have honest conversations. If applicable, leaders can share their own stories of challenges and struggles with mental health issues. There is strong evidence to suggest that committing to workplace mental health brings stronger performance, a healthier culture and better business results.

Embrace diversity, equity and inclusion: Make sure your mental health workplace strategies are fully inclusive, especially for LGBTQIA+, BIPOC and neurodiverse team members. This will help everyone address stigma, stereotypes and unconscious prejudice at work.

Communications and training: Invest in training for leaders in communications and organizational best practices so that employees feel safe and not in fear of punishment for ups, downs or major issues with their mental health.

Above all, recognize that it is OK not to be OK. Not just your employees, your family members and your friends. But you, too, as a senior business leader.

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