COVID-19 strategy 101: How to improve mental health

A focus on mental health always makes good business sense. But in the time of coronavirus, as well as the protests taking place nationwide, the practice is becoming more vital than ever. Employees are experiencing higher rates of mental health issues and struggling with feelings of isolation, loneliness and stress–and many are looking to their employer for help.

“In our current circumstances, where we are forced into a position where we go back to the fundamentals–like taking care of each other and treating each other like human beings–we realize that the stuff that maybe used to be viewed as extra or nice-to-haves, like mental health, is absolutely necessary and foundational,” says Reetu Sandhu, a manager at the Limeade Institute, which conducts research about wellbeing. “Simply put, mental health and our fundamental human needs are no longer aspects of work that can be deprioritized.”

HR executives and other corporate leaders have been stepping up in response to the current environment. So what are some of the best ways to provide mental health support to employees? Here’s what HR leaders and other industry experts had to say.

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Evaluate and add resources. The pandemic has caused a number of employers to quickly pivot and add resources around mental health, from free therapy sessions and EAPs to apps. Some 53% of 256 employers surveyed by the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions reported providing special emotional and mental health programs for their workforce because of the pandemic. Among the companies that have expanded and added resources, Starbucks rolled out therapy benefits for its workers in April; the coffee giant now provides all U.S. employees–and their eligible family members–access to 20 sessions a year with a mental health therapist or coach through provider Lyra Health, at no cost to the user. Sessions can be in person or via video chat.

Related: Is COVID-19 a turning point for workplace mental health?

Make sure employees are aware of EAPs and other resources. While the vast majority (93%) of HR professionals say they offer an employee assistance program, nearly half of workers say their employer doesn’t offer an EAP or are unsure if they do, according to new research out from benefits provider Unum. “Awareness, education and early intervention are important components of the adoption of mental health benefits and resources,” says Laurie Mitchell, assistant vice president of global wellbeing and health at Unum. “Most EAPs offer a set of counseling sessions free of charge, access to app-based mental health tools, and other self-directed resources.”

Offer one-on-one support. Anne Richter, a health management consultant at consulting firm Willis Towers Watson, says regular support–check-ins, asking how employees are doing, and showing empathy and support from direct supervisors or team leaders, for instance–is “just as powerful as a program or EAP or an app. Those things, the one-on-one connections, are just as important,” she says. “Before you get down to business and discuss things, you ask how they’re doing. It used to be a formality. It’s a very important thing, and we cannot discount it.”

Related: How COVID-19 taught HR ‘a valuable lesson’ on mental health

Create clear boundaries between work and personal time in remote settings. Being flexible about employees’ schedules in the new environment–and encouraging them to take time for themselves and their families–is an important strategy, says LogMeIn’s Deal. “We have encouraged people to step away from their desks and take a walk or a break, carve out time for children during the day, get work done at odd hours, basically whatever works to help people survive,” she says. “While home is work and work is home, it is especially important to help employees set boundaries and provide advice on how to switch off when the work day is done to allow a proper separation mentally, even if physically you are still ‘in the office.’ Flexibility and empathy are so critical right now, and speaking openly about mental health and the challenges many of us are facing also creates a safe space for people to come forward and ask for help.”

“Awareness, education and early intervention are important components of mental health benefits”

Consider giving employees an extra day off. Companies including Cisco, Pinterest and SAP have given employees a mental health day to take a breather and focus on self-care. The three companies all extended the Memorial Day weekend for workers. “It might feel like there are so many reasons not to take a day off,” Cisco EVP and Chief People Officer Fran Katsoudas told Cisco employees in an email. “There are few places to go, people need us, and we enjoy our work. Our weeks and weekends are blurring together. Yet there is one reason to unplug: ourselves.”

Return to the beginning 

Find ways to connect with employees. Dealing with social distancing and remote work, more employees are feeling lonely or isolated–feelings that take a toll on employees’ mental and emotional health. That’s been a big challenge for companies like financial services firm Edward Jones. Knowing that some employees were having a hard time, the firm became “intentional about equipping its leaders with ways to connect with associates–from video calls and different tools to help people feel connected, says Kristin Johnson, Edward Jones’ chief human resources officer. Johnson also began “coffee chats”–which she hosts twice a week with a partner from the organization for all 49,000 employees. The chats welcome different guests to talk about a variety of subjects–best practices on emotional health, for example, or a business topic for their branch teams. “It’s been really great to see the response of people really valuing that we stay connected when they’re not physically able to be together,” she says.

Related: Edward Jones’ coronavirus strategy: Keeping employees (virtually) connected

Offer tips and education on how to cope. Kathie Patterson, CHRO of Ally Financial, a Detroit-based bank, says a lot of her mental health strategy as of late has been training managers, encouraging empathy and support, and giving employees tips on how to cope. “We’re working on helping people understand they are going through a grief cycle; [they’re] going through a loss,” Patterson says. “[So we’re saying], ‘Here are some things we know about grief to help [you] build [your] awareness around it,’ and we’re doing education and workshops for leaders to think about how they can be more supportive.”

Talk openly about mental health. Historically, employees haven’t felt comfortable speaking openly about their mental health struggles. That’s something that is changing due to COVID-19. Being more open about mental health in the workplace “must begin at the top and cascade throughout the organization,” says Businessolver CEO Jon Shanahan. “Leaders need to create a culture of openness and inclusion, one that encourages and provides avenues for people to share openly as needed. In fact, 93% of employees say that an open-door policy that allows face-to-face communication with leadership or HR is important to addressing employee mental health.”

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Utilize apps. Apps that focus on areas such as mindfulness, stress reduction and better sleep are tools that some employers are turning to in an effort to improve employees’ mental health. Provider Headspace says it’s seen a 400%-plus increase in requests from companies seeking support for their employees’ mental health since mid-March, and Big Health cites that same triple-digit increase in employer interest in the same timeframe. Both firms are offering their products free to employers for a limited time to help during the pandemic. Starbucks is one company offering Headspace, the daily meditation and mindfulness app, to its workers. “It really cleanses and settles the mind, [especially as] we’ve been dealing with COVID,” Starbucks regional vice president Camille Hymes said in early May during an Instagram Live video. “People have worries and fears–and it’s all normal, and we recognize that. And we want to make sure they have an outlet for it.”

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.