To help employees deal with coronavirus-related stress and mental health issues, a strong Employee Assistance Program or EAP is a good place to start.

As the nation approaches the half year mark in the ongoing saga of the coronavirus pandemic, the issue of mental health takes center stage and should be a  concern for employers. As the illness continues to spike, the stressors that employees face are not easing and uncertainty looms. According to the American Medical Association, at least 30 states are reporting spikes in fatal opioid overdoses and ongoing concern about mental illness or substance use disorders, all in connection with COVID-19. It’s important for employers to be sensitive to the mental health impact on employees and to ensure that the appropriate support resources are in place and promoted to the workforce.

In The Atlantic, Jacob Sterntalks about the ways that This Is Not a Normal Mental-Health Disaster, citing census data showing that a third of Americans are feeling severe anxiety and nearly a quarter show signs of depression. He discusses the ways that the pandemic is different from other disasters and why we are likely to see secondary and mental health effects continue over time, even after a vaccine. He notes that depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance abuse, child abuse, and domestic violence almost always surge after natural disasters, but that most disasters are events that have a duration and affect a specific location. With a pandemic, the danger is ongoing over a lengthy period, and the geography or location of risk keeps shifting. He cites a study showing that even as long as four years after the SARS pandemic, survivors experienced active psychiatric illness, most commonly PTSD or depression.

As employees reduce work-from-home programs and bring employees back to the physical workplace, they must be aware of these issues., Let’s look at the litany of stressors and issues facing employees today:

  • Health and safety concerns, both for themselves and their families. Safety fears may be exacerbated as many return to the physical workplace.
  • Isolation and social distancing. Many feel the effects of being apart from beloved families and friends over an extended period. They also miss the normal daily interaction with neighbors and community.
  • Family dynamics. Being cooped up at home has pulled some families closer together but revealed the fault lines in some troubled relationships.
  • Financial strain. Many families are experiencing economic distress through unemployment, furloughs, or income reduction. Many have lost health insurance, adding further financial stress and worry.
  • Childcare responsibilities. With schools closed, childcare becomes a difficult issue. Work-from-home parents juggle work with home schooling. Parents who are returning to the job may face closed schools and a lack of daycare options, a difficult conundrum.
  • Essential and front-line workers face additional challenges. For example, the stress and pressure on healthcare workers has been severe, resulting in fatigue depression and PTSD-type reactions from many.
  • Loss and grief. Feelings of loss can range from the profound as in the case of the death of loved ones to the everyday  losses of familiar routines and the comfort of enjoyable outside activities, such as church, sports, travel, theater, and outside hobbies.
  • Work from home. While some have thrived and enjoy the challenges, others find that working at home isolating or difficult to juggle.

Human Resource Executive reports that  “The vast majority of employees say it’s the most stressful time of their career—even more stressful than major events like Sept. 11 and the 2008 Great Recession” In the article Is COVID-19 will be turning point for workplace mental health. they examine the ways that employers are addressing mental health issues and promoting resilience,

But as a record number of employees look to their employers for help, the situation is revealing a startling fact: Many employers did not have the benefits, programs or culture in place to adequately address mental health concerns even before coronavirus.

For examples of lack of support benefits, a recent survey revealed that 21% of polled companies did not have an employee-assistance program (EAP) and only 13% provide on-site stress-management programs. But even those organizations that do have benefits suffer from a lack of utilization, which can often be attributed to weak or no communication about these benefits or a reluctance to address mental health issues, still too frequently seen as a taboo topic.

Communication about mental health benefits or offerings has lagged as well, resulting in workers who have no idea what kind of help their employer provides. For instance, 55% of employees said their employer did not have, or they were unsure if their employer had, a specific program, initiative or policy in place to address mental health, according to Unum research from last year. EAPs, for instance, aren’t a benefit mentioned during annual enrollment because employees don’t need to reelect them as they would health insurance, Richter notes. So, without significant reminders from employers, most employees don’t remember such programs or even know they exist.

One of the biggest shortcomings in employers’ mental health efforts was being unprepared, unequipped or simply reluctant to address the issue. Just 25% of managers in the U.S. have been trained in referring employees to mental health resources, and more than half of people are unsure how they would help a colleague who came to them with a mental health issue, according to Unum.

What employers can do to help employees deal with stress and mental health issues:

  • If you don’t already have one, make it a priority to get an Employee Assistance Program.
  • Get the right Employee Assistance Program. Not all EAPs are created equal. Whether you are a first-time shopper for an EAP or evaluating the one that you currently have, take the time to do your due diligence. Look for an EAP with excellent counseling, a broad range of benefits such as coaching and training to deal with everyday issues such as personal finance, stress, family issues, and resilience. Find out if the EAP offers support services and training for supervisors and managers. Ask about utilization rates and employee satisfaction because unless your employees use and like the benefit, it is not doing what you need it to do,
  • Take advantage of any mental health benefits available to your employees through your health plans.
  • Promote available mental health benefits frequently through various channels and messages, both inline and off. Remind employees of the availability in meetings, orientation, newsletters, billboard, intranets, posters, flyers, social media, and payroll stuffers.
  • Train your supervisors and managers to be alert for stressors and mental health issues, often evident through changes in performance,Train them in how to appropriately refer to the EAP for services.

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