2020 has been a challenging year for so many, with Americans reporting elevated levels of mental illness, substance use, and suicidal ideation, according to a recent report by the CDC.
“Feeling lonely, down, or anxious right now makes sense,” said Dr. Connie Chen, chief medical officer at Lyra Health, a startup that partners with companies (such as Facebook and Starbucks) to provide mental health benefits. She, and journalist author Dan Harris, spoke with senior writer Ainsley Harris (no relation) during the last day of Fast Company’s Innovation Festival. The duo shared their thoughts on meditation, isolation, and how companies can help support their employees during these challenging times.
Harris first got interested in mental health and meditation after having a panic attack on Good Morning America. Today, he’s the author of the best-selling book 10% Happier and has an app and a podcast (by the same name) focused on teaching meditation techniques, coping skills, and stress relief. He says he’s seen an increase in demand among users looking for the basics of how to incorporate various practices such as meditation into their daily lives.
“[This year] has become a good opportunity for millions of people to take stock, step back, and say, ‘How can I work on my mind?'” he said. “We spend so much time working on our stock portfolios, our interior design, our résumé, our Instagram page, but so little time working on the one filter through which we experience everything.”
The loneliness epidemic dates back far before the start of COVID-19, says Harris. “Even going into the pandemic, we were seeing a huge issue with loneliness, which—to use a loaded phrase—we’ve put on steroids with social distancing,” said Harris. “We’re designed to be part of a tribe, and we’ve dismantled the tribe, to our detriment in massive, massive ways.”
Chen says that many employers are starting to see the importance of helping employees access mental health resources—especially as many of their workers are more isolated than ever before. “What’s been particularly hard about this year is for a lot of people in the workforce, with the disintegration of broader social networks, maybe their remaining tribe was their coworkers, and now with work from home, that’s being pulled [out] from under them.”
Mental health affects the bottom line of companies across industries, says Chen. “Self-insured employers spend something like $38 billion a year on mental health through their [employee assistance plans] or their health plan. In addition to that there’s probably about $140 billion in indirect costs that employers incur through things like disability, absenteeism, presenteeism,” says Chen. “Especially this year—whether or not your employees are talking about it, they’re struggling.”
Both Harris and Chen emphasized the importance of equipping individuals with the skills necessary to weather this anxiety-filled time. “Part of what we want to do is to help people develop the skills to cope better—because the challenges we face are very real and hard to change,” said Chen.