Due to a plethora of issues—including the COVID-19 pandemic, the civil unrest in the country, and uncertainties about the road ahead—many employees are experiencing a higher than normal level of emotional turmoil and stress. If people ignore these feelings or try to push them down, they may suffer even more severe and debilitating mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, burnout, trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Unum conducted a survey of employers in August 2020. Among the 409 employers polled, 67% anticipated employees’ use of existing mental health or wellness benefits would increase in the coming months. In another study by Willis Towers Watson, 84% of employers acknowledged that access to high-quality mental health solutions is a top priority.
May was National Mental Health Awareness month. While HealthComp participated in last month’s national movement to increase awareness about mental health concerns, we didn’t want the conversation to end there. This subject is important to us and something we want to discuss openly and honestly.
Within the past year, we’ve all carried a heavy weight—albeit in different ways. Many had to adjust to new work-life situations, the loss of jobs, or even—tragically—the loss of loved ones. Remote work helped to keep people safe from the virus, but it also brought isolation and loneliness. It’s natural that such circumstances would lead to a rise in mental health issues. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder increased from 11% during the period of January to June 2019 to 41.5% during the two-week period of January 20, 2021 to February 1, 2021.
Many employers understand that fostering mental health during these trying times is not only beneficial for employees—it’s also the right thing to do. When workers receive treatment for psychosocial issues, it helps lower overall healthcare costs, increases productivity, and reduces absenteeism and disability. In this series, we’ll talk through some of the strategies that we’ve seen employers implement to promote mental health awareness.
A Focus on Behavioral Health
Behavioral health describes the connection between behaviors and the health and well-being of a person’s body, mind, and spirit. This includes such behaviors as eating right, drinking sufficient fluids throughout the day, or getting regular exercise—and how these activities impact physical and mental health.
Modifying behaviors or changing how we think can help people cope with difficult circumstances. Experts touted self-care practices as an important way to make it through the pandemic one day at a time. Even small practices could have a big impact on perspective.
That’s why many health plans provided members with access to digital behavioral health solutions, including mobile mindfulness apps. These digital tools provided remote workers with gentle reminders to practice healthy behaviors, such as taking time out to focus on breathing, expressing gratitude for something in their lives, keeping regular sleeping hours, and engaging in other forms of stress reduction, such as meditation.
Other employers provided reimbursement for home-based fitness programs This helped employees get the stress-reducing benefits of exercise, especially as gyms and yoga studios shut down. But even as fitness centers start to reopen, home-based exercise is still a great way for employees to sneak in fitness throughout their day.
A significant barrier to addressing mental illness is the shame and stigma associated with it. Oftentimes, those suffering from these disorders feel they’ll be met with “get over it” or “buck up.” This can lead to a reluctance to talk about their issues, and in some cases, people won’t admit they need help and treatment.
The silver lining of the pandemic is that it has helped normalize mental health concerns. Almost everyone in the past year has experienced some form of stress and emotional upset. This universality has helped reduce negative associations with mental illness.
Many companies and their leaders also fostered an open-door approach—inviting people to talk about what they’re going through. At the corporate level, companies have conveyed support for mental health, and managers modeled healthy behaviors. For example, they might talk about going for a walk after lunch, setting up counseling to discuss work life balance, or scheduling a stay-at-home vacation to prevent burnout.
Even as vaccines are broadly administered in the U.S., companies are still prioritizing mental health training for managers. This way, managers can continue to be cognizant of employee well-being, especially as folks return to the office. Managers will know how to spot signs of distress and how to talk to employees without overstepping boundaries.
Education on EAPs and Other Benefits
During the pandemic, employers circulated information about Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), and other mental health benefits offered through their health plans, such as digital programs for virtual therapy or meditation.
Prior to COVID-19, employees were less likely to use these services and may not have been aware that they had access to them as part of their health plan. Employers reminded them about these services and that they could use them to discuss a variety of topics affecting mental and emotional wellbeing, including work-related stress, grief, or family problems. In communications, employers included all relevant websites and phone numbers, so employees could reach out to their EAP or health plan if they required help.
While the pandemic is hopefully coming to an end, the ramifications of the past 14 months make it clear that we cannot continue to sweep mental health under the rug. As employers and as human beings, we all have a responsibility to support one another as best as we can, especially during these trying and unusual times.
In the next installment of this series, we’ll talk about some additional strategies that employers can use to promote better mental health in the workplace, such as increasing coverage for mental health services and supporting employees as they return to the office.