Economic and food insecurity, family obligations, home schooling and the ongoing pandemic have sent stress, anxiety and depression to all-time highs. Calls to help suicide centers and helplines are underway. So are alcohol and cannabis sales, and opioid deaths are accelerating. More than 40 states have reported an increase in opioid deaths since the epidemic began.
Then there are residual symptoms from COVID-19 itself. According to a recent report in Lancet Psychiatry, almost 1 in 5 with COVID-19 is diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder such as anxiety, depression or insomnia within three months. People recovering from COVID-19 were about twice as likely to be diagnosed with a mental health disorder compared to someone who had the flu.
Of course, depression and other mental health disorders were widespread even before the disruption of normal social interaction. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 8.1% of Americans age 20 and older have depression in any two-week period. It is also closely linked to alcohol and other drug abuse, overeating and other behavioral health problems.
Most employers offer resources to address mental and behavioral health. But with many employees still working from home, these resources can be out of sight, and most likely, even out of mind.
This Month of Mental Health Awareness, here are three tips for organizations to support their employees:
Clear and consistent messaging
One of the most difficult aspects of mental and behavioral health problems is that many, if not most, try to manage themselves. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is stigma. Employees fear that they will be judged and treated differently if their employer knows they have a mental health situation. While stigma in the workplace is diminishing, we still have a way to go before mental illness is treated like any other illness.
But this is a unique time. The workplace, routines and expectations have changed. People have become more willing to talk about declining mental health during the pandemic. And since many fear that this decline will continue in some form for months, if not years, this will is even more important.
This means that employees are more likely to be open to consistent messages about the resources available to help with mental, family and financial problems. Now more than ever, clear and consistent messaging is needed to let employees know that they are not alone. Companies should provide intranets / portals that include a centralized repository for benefits and resources and a place to view personal stories — especially for remote workers. Emails and other reminders should be sent regularly. Insurers and health care providers should also be brought into the effort. A consolidated effort should be sought with vendor partners to address the healthy-mental and physical person.
Employee assistance programs
A high percentage of employers have an employee assistance program. While use is over, employers should think of ways to continue this trend. In the past, the use of EAPs has been low, and we need to ensure that they do not return to pre-pandemic levels.
Some of the responsibilities for low utilization belong to the owners. Too many organizations don’t communicate about EAP as effectively as they could. This is a loss for employees — and employers. Although detailed EAP benefit statistics are limited, documented studies suggest that employer-sponsored EAPs can reduce the costs of absenteeism, medical, pharmacy, and workers ’compensation.
The current situation lends itself to EAP use. Since so many programs are already conducted online or over the phone, remote employees can more easily integrate into the rest of their lives. Access to an EAP from home increases the sense of confidentiality and privacy. In addition, there are several applications now available that focus on stress reduction and attention. Telehealth also has a much higher acceptance. Companies should double the promotion of EAP and communicate to employees that the use of them has no impact on any appraisal or job opportunity.
Work / life balance
Employers have reviewed and created new leisure policies in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic — such as disease escalation and PTO — and loosening some protocols around benefit and bonus reviews. Many remote employees work longer hours at home than in the office. And while this could be great for productivity, it can interfere with family and household obligations. This, in turn, can increase stress and trigger mental health conditions.
Even before COVID-19, employees felt anxious trying to manage their families and be productive. Employers should encourage their staff to strive for a work-life balance and consider revised policies, as well as benefits, to help employees feel they can succeed.
The pandemic has forced massive changes for a short period of time, and even with vaccines, it is certainly not over. The inevitable result is stress, anxiety, depression and other mental and behavioral health challenges. It is more important now than ever before for the organization to communicate resources and benefits available to employees so that when we move beyond the pandemic, we have a workable and mentally healthy workforce.