Pandemic, Unrest Brings Mental Health to Light

Gloria Salinas, Managing Director, Economic Development

For years, the stigma of mental health has made it a taboo subject in the workplace.

But in today’s pandemic-plagued world coupled by a national outcry over racial injustice and inequalities, stress and anxiety have become a collective experience. In the Dallas Regional Chamber’s Future of Work and Business survey, employee health and wellness has become the number one concern of employers. Creating company culture and morale in the virtual world and finding ways to safely return to the workplace are top-of-mind issues for companies in the Dallas Region.

Good news: the brain is an easily influenced organ, and there are very simple strategies and tactics that can improve brain health and performance, Steve White, Executive Director of Brain Performance Institute, said at a June 24 virtual Responsible Return to Work discussion hosted by the DRC.

“Research over the past 15-20 years has proven that the brain is not only very complex, but it’s easy to influence,” White said. “You actually have control over, what I call your own neuro-pharmacy, and it really is influenced by how you react and whether you are constantly stressed.”

Here are three key takeaways on why and how mental health should be managed:

Everyone Benefits from an Investment in Mental Wellness

“If businesses focused on mental health more, for every $1 you invest in mental health, you turn around and save $4,” said Bonnie Cook, Executive Director of Mental Health America of Greater Dallas, a nonprofit that works to treat mental illness before it reaches its final debilitating stages.

Today, roughly 1-in-5 U.S. adults has a mental illness, and mental illness and substance abuse cost the U.S. about $113 billion per year, Cook said. Last year, corporate America lost $3 billion because of mental health and stress-related issues in the workplace. Studies show that people with mental illness live on average 20 years less than those that are not diagnosed with a mental illness.

“When we have a mental illness, we wait until stage four to even begin to start treating that. We wait until we can’t function, and we can’t function at work,” Cook said. “Because of the stigma of mental illness, we are waiting too late to get the treatment that people need.”

Cook said the nonprofit has seen a 450 percent increase in its anonymous online mental health assessment screening since March. In Dallas, the screening shows that substance abuse has increased drastically, up 550 percent since January, and anxiety is up 300-400 percent since January, along with bipolar disorder and depression.

“We are in a pandemic, but we are also in a pandemic of mental health and mental illness,” Cook said. “As these situations continue, the mental illness aspect of this is going to continue to cripple our system.”

Encourage a Culture of Openness: Watch, Listen, and Talk

In a national survey of physicians, 57 percent said they were frustrated and burned out from complexities of their jobs and demands on services, and then COVID-19 was layered on top.

“Mental health is a big part of health care. It is a big part of all industries,” said Dr. David Winter, Medicine Practitioner at Baylor Scott & White.

With 40,000 employees, BS&W is working to create wellness checks with employees to prevent burnout and stress. A physician wellness committee looks for signs of burnout by monitoring attendance of physicians, surveying patients, encouraging peers to call a helpline if they think a colleague is showing signs of burnout, and doctors hold daily 10-15 minute employee huddles.

Cook said it is important to know signs of burnout, such as exhaustion, and to watch for them. High stress levels influence personal efficacy, such as a typically talkative individual who now keeping the camera off in virtual meetings, seems wilted or easily distracted, or has cynicism, resentment, or anger toward coworkers.

Creating a psychologically safe workplace is about listening to people, said Lex Barbosa, Customer Success Manager at Microsoft, who was previously a therapist at an in-patient psychiatric unit. It is important for HR to create policies, train teams on noticing behavioral changes, and knowing that it is acceptable to take time off and recharge.

“Listen to things people are worried about,” Barbosa said. “Have open and honest conversations with leadership and supervisors, and figure out what can be done.”

Talking about problems can help prevent them. Talking sessions with one or two people you can trust can help relax adrenaline levels that build up with stress.

“You don’t always have to go the doctor to be treated for depression, anxiety, and mental health issues,” Dr. Winter said. “You can talk about it with friends, exercise, and find other ways to relax and bring down those adrenaline levels.”

Support a Holistic Health Approach

“Millennials have taught us that it’s OK to talk about our own brain. And we see a shift from a sign of weakness to strength,” White said. “This is about holistic [care], and if you’re not getting enough sleep, it’s no longer a bragging right to say, ‘I am a great multitasker and I can operate on very little sleep.’ Maybe you can today, but over time, it takes a toll.”

Studies have shown that it is easier to keep a healthy brain healthier for a longer period if a healthy holistic approach to mental and physical health is practiced. Cognitive brain health peaks in late-20s to about the early-40s, and then begins to decline if an individual does nothing to maintain it.

It is important to train the body to eat healthy food, practice good sleep hygiene, mindfulness, and understand triggers that prompt stressful feelings, Barbosa said. Chronic stress causes brain atrophy. Focusing on a task for 45 minutes at a time and then taking a five-minute break is a good practice to make the most of the brain’s capacity to thrive in life, White said.

“If you do these things, your brain health and performance will improve,” White said. “We want to change the downward trend with cognitive health and make it better match the longevity that we are seeing with our physical health.”

The holistic approach to wellness must be both physical and mental, Dr. Winter said.

“The science tells us that if you’re genetically going to get Alzheimer’s, you can delay it for 10 years if you control your blood sugar, blood pressure, your cholesterol, you don’t use tobacco, minimize stress, and exercise.”

Mental Health Resources