Economic and food insecurity, family obligations, home schooling and the ongoing pandemic sent stress, anxiety and depression to all-time highs. Calls to help centers and suicide assistance lines are up. So are alcohol and cannabis sales, and opioid deaths are accelerating. More than 40 states have reported increased deaths from opioids since the epidemic began.
Then there are residual symptoms from COVID-19 itself. According to a recent report in Lancet Psychiatry, nearly 1 in 5 with COVID-19 is diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder like 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 as compared with 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 related to alcohol and other drug abuse, overeating and other behavioral health issues.
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, also out of mind.
This Mental Health Awareness Month, here are three suggestions for organizations to support their employees:
Clear and consistent messaging
One of the more difficult aspects of mental and behavioral health issues is that many, if not most, try to self-manage. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is stigma. Employees fear they will be judged and treated differently if their employer knows they have a mental health condition. While workplace stigma has declined, we still have a ways 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 this decline will continue in some form for months, if not years, this willingness is even more important.
This means employees are more likely to be open to consistent messaging about resources available to them to help with mental, family and financial issues. Now more than ever, clear and consistent messaging is necessary to let employees know they're not on their own. Companies need to ensure intranets/portals include a centralized repository for benefits and resources and a place to view personal stories—especially for remote workers. Email and other reminders should be sent regularly. Insurers and healthcare providers must be brought into the effort too. A consolidated effort should be sought with vendor partners to address the whole person—mental and physical.
Employee assistance programs
A high percentage of employers have an employee assistance program. While use is up, employers should be thinking of ways to continue this trend. In the past, use of EAPs has been low, and we need to ensure they don't return to pre-pandemic levels.
Some of the responsibility for low utilization lies with employers. Too many organizations do not communicate about EAPs as effectively as they could. This is a loss to employees—and employers. Although detailed EAP performance statistics are limited, documented studies suggest employer-sponsored EAPs can reduce absence, medical, pharmacy and worker's compensation costs.
The current situation lends itself to EAP use. Since so many programs are already conducted online or on the phone, remote employees can more easily integrate them into the rest of their lives. Accessing an EAP from home increases the feeling of confidentiality and privacy. In addition, there are many apps now available that focus on stress reduction and mindfulness. Telehealth also has much higher acceptance. Companies should double down on promoting EAPs and communicating to employees that using them has no impact on any workplace assessment or opportunity.
Employers have revised and created new policies for time off related to the COVID-19 pandemic—like expanded sick leave and PTO—and loosening some protocols around performance reviews and bonuses. Many remote employees are working longer hours at home than they would in the office. And while this might be great for productivity, it can interfere with household and family 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 work/life balance and consider revised policies, and even benefits, to help employees feel that they can achieve it.
The pandemic has forced massive change over a short period of time, and even with vaccines, it's certainly not over yet. The unavoidable result is stress, anxiety, depression and other mental and behavioral health challenges. It is more important now than ever before for organizations to communicate resources and benefits available to employees so that when we do get beyond the pandemic, we have a viable and mentally healthy workforce.