Employee mental health continues to be a front-burner issue in the workplace. We discuss what employers can do to help their employees navigate persistent post-pandemic mental health challenges.

Four years ago in March, the World Health Organization declared that COVID-19 was a pandemic. Some nine months later, the first health care workers received vaccines, In year two, as vaccines were widely distributed, employers began grappling with the challenges of bringing employees back to the workplace, and families with the challenges of re-acclimating their children to the classroom. Everybody was eager to get back to “normal.” Last year, three years after the emergency declaration, the  public health emergency was declared over.

Where are we today when we look at the workplace? See the BenefitsPro article: Employee mental health challenges remain after the pandemic, research finds:

Employers will not be surprised to learn that the mental health of workers has taken a significant hit since the beginning of the pandemic.  According to the 2024 Voice of the Workplace Report from Calm, the challenges are far from over:

  • 7 in 10 employees say their mental health has stayed the same or worsened in the past year.
  • 61% have felt down, depressed or hopeless recently.
  • 8 in 10 say they have struggled with nervousness, anxiousness and stress recently.
  • Nearly 70% are having trouble falling asleep.

This survey is not a one-off – other studies show employee mental health and well-being continue as an issue.

  • Nearly two-thirds of U.S. workers struggle with their mental health, with 91% of those employees saying they are less productive at work, according to a 2023 survey of 1,600 workers and HR leaders by One Medical.
  • A recent survey of organizations with at least 500 employees conducted by Mercer found that 67% of employers indicated that depression and anxiety are a concern at work, with 21% citing it as a serious concern, About 68% said job-related stress is a concern and 59% cited financial-related stress.
  • In a Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey of 1,000 workers, 30% reported feeling overwhelmed at work and 29% said their jobs make them feel anxious at least once a week.

The three waves of the pandemic

In 2020, a prescient article predicted this scenario: The Next Pandemic: Mental Health. Authors Isabelle Hau and Cindy Minnis of Imaginable Futures describe the pandemic as occurring in three waves. (We used their wave illustration in this post). The first wave was the physical health crisis, the second wave was the financial crisis, and the third wave is the mental health crisis, which continues. The authors use past events to show evidence of how disaster breeds trauma and long-term mental health challenges. They note that the current crisis has exacerbated the urgent need for massive investments in mental health.

What can employers do to help their employees navigate a path to recovery?

In the early stages of reopening post-pandemic, the Michigan University Department of Psychiatry offered a CNN op-ed on 5 ways businesses can prevent a costly mental health crisis. The article was a collaboration between U.S. mental health doctors from the National Network of Depression Centers, and Project Healthy Minds. Their recommendations urged businesses to step up and address their employees’ serious needs by taking a multi-faceted approach. Among their suggestions:

  • Openly and consistently talk about mental health – to help decrease the stigma and create a structure that permits employees to open up about their own mental health struggles.
  • Train managers – implementing mandatory, company-wide mental health first aid training for managers so that they are well-equipped to proactively identify issues before they get worse.
  • Ditch the “one-size-fits-all” approach – recognize that mental health needs are diverse.
  • Redesign employee benefits to support mental health – ensure that benefits are geared to flexibility and include a focus on health and wellness.
  • Show that your commitment is authentic – management needs to demonstrate an authentic, consistent commitment.

Promote your mental health & wellness benefits

It’s more important than ever for employers to be aware of the potential for issues such as depression, stress, and suicide, and to promote mental health help and suicide prevention resources to employees. The op-ed above notes that while most companies have Employee Assistance Program (EAPs), studies show that  fewer than 10% of employees are taking advantage of them. (At ESI EAP, we are pleased to report that our utilization and engagement rates are more than three times higher than the industry average and we have a 98% employee member satisfaction rate, but we continue efforts to see even more employees taking advantage of this benefit.)

While the time is right to address these challenges now, the month of May is traditionally observed as Mental Health Awareness Month – a good time to mount a full court press in promoting your mental health benefits and initiatives. Mental Health America’s 2024 Mental Health Month toolkit provides free resources to help plan your efforts and raise awareness during the month of May and beyond. It has DIY tools, social media assets, resources, templates, printable handouts, and more.

Here are other ongoing steps you can take to promote mental health in the workplace:

Break down barriers to getting help and normalize seeking mental health help. When employees are asked what prevents them from getting help, the reasons include: Fear of being labeled (stigma); Fear of someone finding our they sought help (confidentiality); Myths and misunderstanding – lack of knowledge about treatment availability and how treatment can help; Denial of need for help – feeling that one can “tough it out” or “go it alone.”; Cost – this is all-too-often a reality. While more insurance plans encompass mental health benefits, coverage  levels are often inadequate; and lack of knowledge about where to turn or what kind of help is needed. Note that a good EAP can go a long way to breaking down all or most of these barriers.

Remind and encourage your employees to use their EAP benefits. Promote the benefit availability at staff meetings. Distribute EAP brochures, videos and messaging to promote mental health services available through their EAP. Think you’ve already told them? Take a lesson from successful advertisers and “repeat, repeat, repeat” – expand the reach and frequency of your messaging in creative ways. Be alert to external forces and events that may add to stress as a time to issue EAP reminders.

Senior managers should model and promote the importance of mental health. We all know that the priorities that the president or CEO sets are the ones that get done. These priorities get the budget, they get added to performance reviews, and they get the attention. Leaders who really want to move the needle on ensuring the well-being of the workforce will play a key spokesperson and champion role for mental health initiatives. There was a day when serious injuries and lives lost on the job were considered part of the cost of doing business, until forward-thinking leaders with a push from OSHA began making safety a focus. Over the last 60 years, work fatalities have dropped by 66%. .

Train supervisors and managers in mental health support. Supervisors are in a key position to spot worker problems early by observing changes in work and personal behavior. However they aren’t counselors and shouldn’t try to be.  Rather, train them to understand and be aware of warning signs of mental health issues, the availability of services, and how to make a referral to employees they supervise.

Promote self-care: Encourage workers to use their vacation and personal days. Offer and promote mental health benefits, training, and initiatives that promote stress management, resilience, mindfulness, relaxation, wellness, and work-life balance. Money problems are a frequent source of stress and distraction for employees, so offering benefits and training focused on personal finance, debt reduction and other money management tools is also beneficial.

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