Only three months ago, COVID-19 was not even on the radar screen for most of us in the US. Now daily life – at work, at home and in our community – has changed dramatically. Employers are still in the rapid-learning mode, struggling to figure out what is best for our people and our companies and how to get that work done. In the scramble to respond to the crisis, employers have understandably had to prioritize. In an ongoing Mercer survey, 28% of the nearly 500 US employers that have responded to date said they have introduced new programs specific to employee mental health since the pandemic began. For many, however, analyzing the impact on employees’ mental health and providing additional support is still on the list of things to do. At this point, we would argue that it needs immediate attention.
Anxiety arises from situations and events that cause fear, uncertainty, unpredictability, lack of control, and confusion – and the current situation checks all of those boxes. In fact, epidemics are historically associated with a rise in depression and anxiety. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, about 20% of the US population was already living with measurable anxiety, 10% with depression, and 7-8% with substance use disorders. This crisis will have had a profound impact on them, but also on many of those who had been doing fine before. Many people have been subject to new and significant stressors: caring for children while working, unemployed family members, their own job insecurities, isolation, grief that cannot be managed or supported in any of the usual ways, and the wholesale disruption of social support networks. In the Mercer survey, 36% of respondents said that employees working remotely are experiencing mental health issues due to social isolation and economic anxiety.
The government, the media, and employers have done a good (and necessary) job of scaring people into staying at home and social isolating. As restrictions are lifted, we are now going to tell workers that it’s okay to return to work. Inevitably, there will be conflicting messages from different sources. To have the confidence to leave their homes, workers will need to trust their employers and their communities to provide adequate safeguards. The way in which employees return to work will depend on the work environment and risk exposures.
Company leaders, including managers and supervisors, are under enormous pressure to do the right thing for their employees and their business in an unprecedented and constantly evolving environment. After working in crisis mode for months, leaders and all employees could be at risk for later onset post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – which might be particularly hard if there is a second wave of the virus. Now it the time to tee up support services. Fortunately, there is a range of services now available to employers, including digital behavioral health solutions that can help. In addition, frequent communication and transparency will go a long way to lower stress and improve trust – which will be critical during the return to work phase and the tough economic times beyond.
May is National Mental Health Month – another reason to make time to address this critical issue. Here’s a checklist for the behavioral health support you and your employees need right now:
Lead with empathy. Build trust by demonstrating that leadership understands the employee experience. Gather input through surveys or focus groups and reflect that understanding back in communications. And, lead by example by demonstrating that you are taking care of yourself.
Build community. Offer support through a variety of programs, such as virtual happy hours, allowing for vacation time, encouraging work-life balance, and supporting virtual social events.
Align benefits with needs. Determine what more you can do to ensure employees and family members have access to mental health providers and resources.
Offer digital options. With physical distancing restrictions in place, virtual visits with coaches or licensed therapists are a critical program component. Keep in mind that not everyone may need therapy, coaching may work for some.
Train managers. Provide front-line managers and supervisors with information and skills to recognize mental health needs and to connect people to appropriate benefit and community resources.
Link to local resources. Connect employees to local resources such as food banks, public transportation, child care, elder care, housing, etc.
Be a source of truth. Access to reliable information is more important than ever when employees are being bombarded with news from so many sources.
Here are some nationally recognized behavioral health resources that employers can share to support employees through the response, return, and reinvent phase of the pandemic: