(Illustration by Biscotto87/iStock by Getty Images)

Amelia Wilcox, founder and CEO of the employee-wellness company Zenovate, can talk in depth about the future of mental health care in the workplace. But in order for most of us to join that conversation, she believes, we need to eliminate any shame in talking about it in the first place.

In that vein, Wilcox opened her presentation at From Day One’s November conference by sharing the story of her friend Shannon. The friend is an Olympian and entrepreneur whose business was dramatically affected by COVID-19. She’s now experiencing financial stress, emotional isolation, marriage strain and physical reactions like picking at her fingers. “Her story is not unique,” Wilcox said. “She’s the healthiest, happiest, most optimistic person I know, with no signs or symptoms of mental illness previous to COVID-19.”

“There should be no shame in what she’s experiencing–it’s actually a common human response a lot of us are experiencing due to the unprecedented amount of stress,” Wilcox continued. Then she laid out what that stress looks like at the moment. According to an American Psychological Association study, new stressors this year include COVID-19 fears, remote work, social unrest, economic uncertainty, and political polarization. That’s on top of pre-existing stressors that range from climate change to mass shootings to the opioid-addiction epidemic.

Amelia Wilcox, founder and CEO of Zenovate (Photo courtesy of Zenovate)

Wilcox made a forceful argument that employers should concern themselves with this issue. Mental illness is now the most expensive health problem in the U.S., surpassing cardiovascular disease, and it results in an average of 35 lost work days per person, Wilcox said. There are also factors harder to measure: detrimental leadership, negative social interactions, and larger impacts on culture and morale.

Fifty percent of employees who would benefit from mental health care never seek it, according to the Center for Workplace Mental Health. Barriers include cost, lack of availability (which has worsened in light of COVID-19), transportation, and inconvenience. There’s also attitudinal barriers, Wilcox noted, including stigmas, concern about confidentiality, its perceived ineffectiveness, and not a failure to understand the severity.

Wilcox sees a promising opportunity in our abrupt shift to working and living online: “The future of mental healthcare is digital,” she said. “The good news is that digital solutions exist and by going digital we can eliminate a lot of the barriers to care.” These are new, on-demand services that an employer can seamlessly connect their employees to, as opposed to a multi-step process that routes an employee to a specialist for a few sessions before they have to find longer-term care through their insurance company.

“The future of mental healthcare is also holistic,” added Wilcox. She pointed out that Corporate America has long focused on wellness and health programs. “No longer is that sufficient … organizations today need physical and mental wellness programs to care for the whole employee.” Leading companies, she added, are providing access to proactive care like mindfulness and meditation, tools to help employees manage stress, and financial well-wellness services.

A slide from Wilcox's presentation

Proactive care should be coupled with on-demand treatment, which doesn’t necessarily have to be provided by licensed therapists, and then be followed by ongoing maintenance through education, training, and the creation of safe spaces to discuss mental health.

“The most important thing your organizations can do is to talk about it,” Wilcox said. “And the way you do that is by having your leaders talk about it.” She pointed to the real-estate company Homie, whose chief executive regularly talks about mental-health issues in the community. “If leadership has talked about their challenges, employees will feel more comfortable and safe managing their challenges as well.”

When it comes to the bottom-line benefits, Zenovate found that every $1 spent on employee mental health has a $4 return. Benefits come in the form of fewer sick days and absences, increased productivity, positive company culture, and better employee retention.  “It’s a proven fact,” said Wilcox, “that when you invest in mental health, the organization sees huge returns on that.”

Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partner who sponsored this thought-leadership presentation: Zenovate. Thank you as well to everyone who attended this conference live. Please visit our conference page to register for more upcoming events.

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, NY-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Curbed and other publications.