COVID workplace changes could improve conditions for people with mental illness

Glied explained that what COVID highlighted was that there are a lot of jobs that people can do.

Calls to a mental health hotline in Israel doubled during the recent crisis, with many callers expressing anxiety about conditions within Israel. (photo credit: GETTY IMAGES/JTA)
Calls to a mental health hotline in Israel doubled during the recent crisis, with many callers expressing anxiety about conditions within Israel.
(photo credit: GETTY IMAGES/JTA)

Changes that were made in the workplace during the coronavirus pandemic could offer solutions to help improve the employment situations of people with mental illnesses, according to Sherry Glied, dean of the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

In an article that she and Richard Frank of the USC-Brookings Schaeffer Initiative for Health Policy wrote for the Brookings Institute, the experts argue that “just as closed captioning and text readers have made it easier for people with hearing and visual impairments to participate in the workforce, the technologies that facilitate remote work and care may offer workers with mental illnesses more opportunities to remain healthy and engaged in work.”

Glied explained that what COVID highlighted was that there are a lot of jobs that people can do, at least some of the time, in other ways – such as communicating via project management or other text-based interactions. These new tools – and even staying home some of the time – could be easier for people who struggle with certain mental illnesses and better allow them to thrive in their jobs. 

She said that people with depression may have trouble getting up, dressed and into the office, so Zoom meetings are a good solution. People with anxiety may have trouble interacting with people, so non-verbal communication could be more productive. 

“If we could get used to what is the easiest way for a person to engage in the workplace, this would be useful for everything and everybody,” Glied said. 

Mental health first aid, illustrative  (credit: CLAUDIO SCHWARZ/UNSPLASH)Mental health first aid, illustrative (credit: CLAUDIO SCHWARZ/UNSPLASH)

Mental disorders don’t fit well in the workplace, because they can be debilitating. Yet work is such a critical part of most people’s lives. 

“While illnesses vary in severity and nature, symptoms can interfere with productivity in ways that have meaningful consequences for employers and employees alike,” Glied and Frank wrote. “Depression, for example, can make small tasks seem daunting and can lead people to be irritable and angry with others. Anxiety can make it hard for people to meet deadlines, participate in meetings, or make presentations. Experiencing symptoms of mental illness can lead people to miss work altogether. In some cases, mental illness symptoms lead people to lose or leave their jobs.

Over the past two years, Glied said, the world has learned that therapy can be given by phone or zoom, which saves time and makes care more accessible. Other previous studies have shown that employee assistance programs that try to connect people to their workplaces, although not therapy, can be effective, she added. 

Even before the pandemic, mental health issues were a growing concern. About one-fifth of the population has diagnosable mental health symptoms, Glied said – “a high portion of the population at all points in time.” 

COVID, of course, put a magnifying glass over everything, including mental health issues – and caused some mental health challenges because of loneliness, fear and people’s various levels of risk tolerance, explained Dr. Talya Miron-Shatz, founding director of the Center for Medical Decision Making at Ono Academic College

“If there is one thing that we need to learn from COVID it is to respect people’s various risk tolerances or lack thereof,” she said. 

Miron-Shatz added that COVID also made people realize that the daily grind of commuting to work was taking a toll on them, forcing employers to rethink working conditions.

“If employers want a future of work where business continues to grow and thrive, then we need responses that recognize the reality of mental health symptoms, allow for flexibility and accommodation in work, and still preserve productivity,” Glied and Frank wrote.

Glied said that in Israel the health funds could be "aggressively working" with employers to find ways to accommodate people with mental illness. She added that “Israel is well-positioned to take up some of these issues.”

“If more employers embrace the treatments and accommodations that have been shown to work along with innovations coming out of the pandemic," Glied and Frank wrote, "we can create a future of work that is more equitable and economically vibrant for individuals with mental illnesses and the companies that employ them."