Choosing between mortality and misery
A recent piece in the Irish Times begins with this striking statement: “In the current crisis, governments are paying enormous attention to the mortality risks of Covid-19 to the exclusion of the misery hits borne elsewhere.” Written by professors Liam Delaney of University College Dublin and Paul Dolan of the London School of Economics, it highlights the potential mental health spillover effects of the actions governments are taking to quell the pandemic. For example, what is the mental health and death toll fallout from unemployment? Excess consumption of alcohol? Increased domestic abuse?
The updated 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer examined the impact of COVID-19 on the trust landscape. It reports that 67% believe the government’s highest priority should be saving as many lives as possible, even if it results in economic damage. The other 33% think we need to get on with things. But there is a question that needs to be asked that’s missing from the conversation, and that is: what is a life worth? And whose lives are we saving? What about these ‘deaths of despair’ — will those ultimately overtake the death toll caused by COVID-19?
These are difficult questions to answer, though ones economists are better positioned than most to value in the abstract. A quote often attributed to Joseph Stalin says something like: “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” It’s a perfect analogy for COVID-19 and what I believe to be at the heart of why this is such a polarizing debate.
We struggle to grasp suffering in such large numbers, so the framing of health statistics in hundreds of thousands of deaths is rendered almost meaningless. On the flipside, it just takes one person we know who was impacted to change our view. This is known as the identifiable victim effect . Individual stories, described in detail, are powerful ways to elicit emotion. For example, people were more likely to donate money to an ill child who needed a costly life-saving treatment when they also saw their name, picture and age versus contributing to a group of unidentified children .
Perhaps the question isn’t will you choose mortality over misery. Much to consider lies in the grey. But it is the nuances of the question that is important to highlight and to factor into decisions.
Just as governments should include mental health impacts (both aggregate and individual) in their policy decisions, so should companies in their business decisions. You may not have economists on staff, but you still know how to consider tradeoffs and what impacts those decisions could have on employees. And it must be handled with the upmost empathy, as leaders, managers and colleagues may not know who was personally impacted by the pandemic. For that person, the question between protecting an individual life from COVID-19 versus just getting on with things to mitigate the larger downfall will be much more emotionally charged. Or maybe their spouse lost their job and now they are the sole breadwinner. For them, “just getting on with things” could be more powerful.
Shore up your mental health resources now:
Examine what grief counselling services you have available. In addition to the standard Employee Assistance Program, many providers offer counselling via their telehealth services.
Be transparent with what’s happening. You don’t have to have the answers, but you do have to have a voice. As business decisions are made, keep employees informed and be honest about the potential health and mental health impact those decisions may have on your people.
Launch targeted health and financial wellness campaigns. Many furloughed or laid-off workers might have been living paycheck to paycheck on a reduced salary; the emotional toll of furlough is well documented as well.
Ask employees what support they need and want from you regarding mental health. Is it mindfulness apps? Is it flexible working? Is it a support network? Is it a feeling of security and safety?
Discuss how you plan to open up the conversation on mental health. Normalizing the issue creates comfort and a feeling of safety.
Revisit your wellness strategy. What programs and wellness campaigns will you run this year to support the needs that have surfaced?
 Jenni, K., & Loewenstein, G. (1997). Explaining the identifiable victim effect. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty,14, 235–257.  Kogut, T., & Ritov, I. (2005a). The identifiable victim effect: An identified group, or just a single individual? Journal of Behavioral Decision Making,18, 157–167.