Innovation has long been a buzzword that gets every entrepreneur, venture capitalist, or big dreamer excited. Every company is looking to bring more of it into its operations. But there is a looming threat to innovation and creativity, beyond Covid-19, competitors, or the economy: the world's mental health crisis.

Our world has been in the midst of a reckoning around mental health for years, and the problem has only been exacerbated by Covid-19. This crisis has a profound impact on productivity, with 40 percent of American adults reporting that they are struggling with mental health issues or substance abuse, and U.S. business losing as much as $300 billion annually.

But the impacts of this mental health crisis run deeper than the bottom line. This crisis could keep us from ever seeing the next innovative billion-dollar idea. People struggling with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues can experience a lack of focus, reduced confidence or self-esteem, resistance to change, and a lack of collaborative energy. This creates an ecosystem where true innovation and creativity falls to the wayside, preventing workplaces from reaching their full potential.

Business leaders need to recognize the reality of this risk and invest in supporting employees in their innovation and creativity. If business leaders don't prioritize this support system, they run the risk of impacting their bottom line, and more importantly, potentially losing out on the next billion-dollar idea.

Creating a Support Infrastructure.

Whether an employee is actively struggling with mental health issues or not, all employees need support and dedicated resources to proactively meet their mental health needs while remaining productive and engaged whenever issues do arise.

The lack of mental health prioritization ultimately affects business operations. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, some companies have realized the importance of mental health support: 53 percent of the 256 employers surveyed by the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions reported providing emotional and mental health programs for their workforce in addition to their existing health plan coverage.

The 47 percent of companies who haven't provided those programs need to invest in a comprehensive mental health framework that supports employees suffering from a spectrum of mental health issues. The framework--which can include mental well-being stipends, expanded mental health benefits, or access to new technology-based wellness platforms--should reflect a proactive approach to mental health care, and let all employees, no matter their need, access care resources appropriate for their level of care in order to prevent more serious mental health issues. This proactive approach can engage employees earlier to ensure that they can remain focused and energized in the workplace.

This support infrastructure should also be ingrained into the company culture through open and honest conversations about mental health. If we can lead with honesty and vulnerability about our everyday stressors and demonstrate prioritizing our mental health, the teammates we collaborate with will be encouraged to do the same. This culture of openness and transparency in the workplace inspires collaboration, creativity, and comfort to share new ideas.

Training Leaders on the Issues.

Not only do business leaders need to be open and honest in their communication about mental health, but they also must be well equipped to handle their employees' everyday stress. Before Covid-19, 62 percent of employees reported positive mental health. Now that has dropped to just 28 percent. For company leaders and managers navigating this downward trend at work, the proper training is critical to helping employees manage their mental health.

While managers are never expected to take the place of therapists, as those leading teams and setting the tone for productivity, it's critical that they understand how to support employees. In practice, this looks like sensitivity training, adjusted feedback and performance review processes, and an understanding of when to involve external parties. Implementing these practices yields positive results. According to a 2017 study from The Lancet, teams whose managers received just four hours of training on mental health issues saw an 18 percent reduction in work-related sick time off (the control group measured a 10 percent increase)--leading to an associated ROI of $13.30 for each $1.30 spent on training. It's clear that leaders need to implement healthy habits and best practices that will positively impact employees' mental health.

As business leaders, we remain focused on delivering value, building our companies, and creating real innovation that solves important problems. That's what I love about what we do: The ability to drive real change. But first, we must create real change within our own organizations. Our employees are still our number one asset; we're not all robots yet! The next billion-dollar idea is in someone's head and it could potentially be lost to this mental health crisis. So act now.