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Businesses Must Understand the Intersections of Mental Health, Sustainability

As we emerge from COVID-19 and mental health rises up the corporate agenda, how can businesses incorporate the subject into their core sustainability agenda, rather than treat it as a separate issue?

As we enter a second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, national lockdowns are taking their toll. With limited social contact and far-from-ideal home-working conditions, many people struggle to cope with the new realities of daily life. According to the Centers for Disease Contol and Prevention, the number of adults in the US suffering from anxiety or depression jumped fourfold in the 18 months prior to December 2020.

It is not surprising that more companies are concerned about the emotional wellbeing of their employees during this time. If a company is only as good as its people, improving mental health in the workplace should be top of the corporate agenda. That is certainly the view of BSR, which recently developed a roadmap to help businesses improve employee mental wellbeing a resilience. “Employers have a unique ability to improve the mental health of 157 million working US adults, who spend more time ‘at work’ than on any other activity while awake,” it says.

The issue was also the subject of a recent Sustainable Brands™ webinar. Hosted by social impact educational technology company EVERFI, the session explored the intersections between our our physical, environmental and economic health.

“As corporations ingrain sustainable practices into their supply chains, while also increasing their corporate social responsibility efforts, they may be overlooking an element that weaves a thread between both of these initiatives: mental health,” said Erin McClintock, EVERFI’s VP of Community Engagement Impact and Education.

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Collectively, her fellow speakers set out to ensure mental wellbeing is integrated into corporate efforts to protect and look after people. In her opening comments, Kellie Ballew — VP of Global Sustainability at the world’s largest carpet manufacturer, Shaw Industries — reminded everybody how tough the past 12 months have been. On top of fighting the virus, there was plenty of social and political upheaval — between the US election and Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements, the atmosphere across the country has remained fraught with collective tension.

Ballew acknowledged that business has a role to play in supporting mental wellbeing. After all, as Dr Joseph Allen from the Harvard School of Public Health provocatively said, the person who manages your building has a greater impact on your health than your doctor. “Think about that for a second. The building and construction industry has such an important role to play in creating healthy spaces,” she said. “We’ve all heard the unfortunate statistic that people spend 90 percent of their time indoors — and that was before COVID. It’s no wonder the spaces where we spend most of our time impact our mental and physical wellbeing — and it’s an aspect of sustainability that resonates with both our commercial and residential customers.”

The power of influence can support our wellbeing challenges

The effects of the pandemic have further highlighted the stark inequalities faced by people across the US in getting support for their physical and mental health. Stacy Reingold, who leads brand sustainability impact programs at Danone North America, is all too aware of key societal gaps.

“Experiencing food insecurity can be a stressor, potentially causing challenges to individuals' mental health. Danone North America recognizes this and donated $1.5 million in funding and products during the pandemic to improve food access in local communities across the US,” she said. “It’s so important we talk about the challenges we're facing, including mental health, because every conversation can advance progress towards solutions and dispel stigma around these challenges.”

AT&T has also been leveraging its influence and reach to support what Brooke Hanson, the firm’s Director of CSR, calls the “staggering” impacts on our mental health. Working with NAMI, the biggest grassroots mental health charity in the US last year, AT&T through Warner Media used its power to connect (and recruit some big celebrities) to create a public service announcement based on the notion that “it’s ok to not feel ok.”

The telecomms giant also collaborated with Mindright Health — an alumnus from AT&T’s Aspire Accelerator that helps incubate educational technology solutions: “We collaborated to help connect young people suffering from anxiety and depression with the resources they need” Hanson added.

At Danone North America, Reingold is proud of her company’s policies that aim to support employees, such as its flexible time-off policy — enabling staff and managers to discuss how having time off can improve mental well-being while still meeting business objectives.

Companies are integrating mental wellbeing in core sustainability programs

With mental health rising up the corporate agenda, how important is it for business to incorporate the subject into their core sustainability agenda rather than see it as a separate issue? For Ballew, the pandemic has radically shifted corporate philosophies. “Employers are more employee-centric than ever,” she said. “Companies realise that employee wellbeing is critical to sustaining businesses for the long term. And people and planet are inextricably linked.”

Danone North America also recognizes this intersectionality; its vision of One Planet.One Health focuses on the interconnectivity of health of people and health of the planet and the company’s unique opportunity to impact both through its actions and its products.

AT&T has seen growing climate anxiety among young people. “As a business, we’re really interested in this intersection — and how we can help young people in how they’re feeling about climate change,” Hanson said. The company has worked hard to provide content and resources related to environmental sustainability.

The panel was also keen to highlight the many environmental stressors that continue to impact mental wellbeing. Ballew pointed to space design and product selection in construction as obvious examples of how the built environment can impact our mental health. “Research has shown that having enough natural light is not only healthy for our eyes but also in encouraging positive circadian rhythms, the internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycles,” she said.

Focus on what you’re good at

The webinar session concluded with each panellist giving their advice to companies looking to support mental health in their own spheres. Hanson reflected on AT&T’s experiences in reaching out to its community to talk about what’s important to them: “Focus on what’s in your DNA as a business. Financial contributions are important; but beyond that, think about what’s unique about your company — whether that’s your technology, your people, or your ability to raise awareness.”

Reingold agrees that connecting actions to the core business strategy is key: “There are many pathways to create an impact in this space. So, you need to understand what element you’re looking to positively impact and keep revising your strategy to make sure you’re achieving exactly that, while also continuing to learn from partners and experts.”

EVERFI’s McClintock wrapped up the session by reminding the audience that, when it comes to addressing mental health issues as part of a wider corporate strategy, “sustainability, like mental health, is a journey — and as we learn more, we can do more.”

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