Mental Health and Compliance Officers

There is a mental health crisis in the U.S. workforce today, which I suspect is not news to compliance officers. So when I had the privilege to moderate a webinar on how mental health issues can affect corporate culture and compliance officers themselves, I took detailed notes. 

First, we need to clarify what we mean when talking about “mental health” issues.  The panelists on the webinar (Paul Liebman, head of compliance at Harvard University; and Sarah Ross, a former compliance officer at Novartis who now runs a consulting business on burnout, depression, and related issues) were quick to note that the phrase can cover a range of issues, such as:

Things get even more complicated because people tend to squeeze other problems under the mental health umbrella, too. For example, drug, alcohol, or gambling addictions can all lead to depression or anxiety that manifests on the job. Or people might suffer with a mental health issue, and then descend into drug or alcohol abuse as a misguided attempt at self-treatment. The lines are blurry, which makes grappling with mental health no easy task. 

Then comes another tricky question. How many workers, and in particular how many compliance officers, suffer from some sort of mental health issue? 

One recent study found that 76 percent of U.S. workers reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition in 2021, up 17 percentage points in two years. The 2022 State of SOX Market Report, which polled 305 SOX compliance officers earlier this year, found that 45 percent of SOX compliance officers “often or sometimes” suffered job-related depression or anxiety. 

That’s not much quantitative data, but it’s still a safe bet that mental health issues are a widespread concern for both compliance professionals specifically and the workforce overall. 

Why Talk About Mental Health Now?

The answer to that question lies in — you guessed it — the pandemic. Our shift to remote work in response to covid-19 shattered countless workplace routines, and especially for white-collar workers such as compliance officers, those routines remain broken. That creates the space for mental health issues to fester.

For example, we had several hundred attendees on the webinar — and as I scanned the comments in the chat box, the word “isolation” appeared over and over. As one person said, “The pandemic brought more loss, isolation, stress, burnout, and blurring of the lines that people are still suffering from and not able to cope with. We were not taught pandemic coping skills.”

Coping with what, exactly? The list is endless, but not necessarily obvious. Few of us were ready to cope in 2020 with the possibility of contracting a deadly illness, but at least we could understand what that threat was. On the other hand, as Sarah Ross pointed out on the webinar, many people struggled with the sudden proximity to their spouse all the time. It’s hard enough for many people to articulate a general need for alone time to their loved ones; the pandemic forced legions of us to negotiate clear, specific agreements for it, amid all the usual chaotic demands of modern careers. And that assumes you even had the physical space for alone time at all.

Liebman, from Harvard, said he often hears from other compliance officers that they feel as if their lives no longer have “slack” in their workday. They lurch from one task or crisis to the next, with no time to pause and reflect on larger issues that might help to improve their lives, their careers, or even their compliance programs. (As an aside, this is a career trap Kristy Grant-Hart called out in her book from 2017, Wildly Strategic Compliance Officer.) 

Moreover, that lurching happens while many compliance officers still work from home most of the time — so it gets easier to erase that boundary between work and personal life. Even the technology we use feeds into that environment of constant distractions, with alerts and notifications cropping up one after the other. (One tip the webinar participants embraced: turning off the alerts on your apps.) 

To my thinking, the fundamental dynamic here is that for many years, the business world has been moving toward a more “measurable” operating environment — every future plan modeled, every current action tracked, and all performance analyzed to assure that your actions keep pace with the model’s forecasts. Technology allows senior managers to do that from some distant perch, but prior to the pandemic, we also worked in close personal contact with coworkers. 

Now we’ve given up that personal contact that humanized all those roles and responsibilities dictated by the org chart, and sanded down the sharp edges of our measured and modeled lives just enough to keep us sane. We can return to some of that kinder, gentler way of life if we try — and we should, because for far too many people, what we do today is untenable.

What Can Compliance Officers Do?

We had some great suggestions from the panelists and webinar participants.

  • First, understand the difference between mental health, which we described above; and mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or suicidal depression. Mental illness requires professional medical attention beyond a compliance or HR team’s ability to address. Know when to send an employee to professional help.
  • Second, consider how your company could weave mental health awareness into training, and especially manager training. One attendee’s idea: “It would be useful for companies to invest in annual compassion training for employees as they do for all other types of training.” I wholly agree. The upside in better morale, higher productivity, and even fewer lawsuits or resignations from poorly handled mental health crises will far outweigh the costs.
  • Along the lines of Liebman’s point on creating slack, try to define boundaries between work and personal life. Europe, for example, forbids managers from emailing employees after work hours. Not every company might want to go to that extreme, but erasing the line between personal and professional is a recipe for trouble over the long term.
  • Find a friend in your field. This is not as corny or simplistic as it sounds; Gallup, for example, asks employees in workforce sentiment surveys, “Do you have a best friend at work?” because the question correlates to worker retention. If you feel like you have someone to speak to about stress, you’re more likely to understand and confront that stress. True for compliance officers and other employees alike.

We should also acknowledge the strong connection between mental health and a speakup culture generally. That is, if employees feel afraid to speak up about feeling stressed or overworked — does anyone seriously expect those same people will speak up about misconduct they might see? Of course not. 

A strong speakup culture is predicated on workers believing that the company wants to hear their concerns. The issue isn’t so much about employees speaking, because they will speak; just not to their managers or your compliance hotline. The issue is management listening and making real gestures to address their concerns.

That’s going to be hard for mental health, because many times it means companies will need to slow down and respond to employee requests rather than to the profit motive. It requires sensitivity and compassion in leadership that not all companies can practice, especially at scale. (Although bromides about supporting employees and their health, that’s easy.) 

But if you fail at that relationship, when the employee is asking for the company’s help — we can’t expect employees to offer the company help, in the form of reporting misconduct they see. It all starts here.

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