How well are HR’s strategies helping mental health?

Despite some improvement, experts say there is “still a workplace mental health epidemic that cannot be ignored.”
By: | February 23, 2021 • 2 min read

There have been some strides in employees’ mental health since numbers hit an all-time low last month, according to new figures, but COVID-19 continues to take a dramatic toll on workers’ emotional wellbeing.

Total Brain’s Mental Health Index shows some promising news for employers increasingly challenged to support their workers’ mental health amid COVID-19. Data comparing December to January revealed a notable decline in risk of depression (down 30%) and PTSD (down 25%); and a considerable increase in sustained attention (up 21%). Last month, the index showed especially concerning data for employers, including a 48% increase in the risk of depression—a risk level not seen since spring of 2020.

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“There’s some level of hopefulness but some reservations as well,” Michael Thompson, National Alliance president and CEO, said during a webinar discussing the index results. The mental health index, in partnership with the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, One Mind at Work, and the HR Policy Association and its American Health Policy Institute, is based on 500 anonymized assessments randomly selected among thousands of Total Brain assessments taken each week.

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Although there were improvements from December to January, the mental state of employees still isn’t good: Risk of depression is 71% higher than before COVID-19. Meanwhile, risk of PTSD is 33% higher than before the pandemic, while sustained attention is 27% worse.

“It’s different for everyone,” said Colleen McHugh, executive vice president of the American Health Policy Institute and strategic advisor for HR Policy Association. “You just don’t know what people are dealing with. Someone may have lost a loved one due to COVID, so that’s a whole other layer of anxiety and how they manage.”

Louis Gagnon, CEO of Total Brain, said employers and employees are not out of the woods yet. “While the numbers are very encouraging, the data tells us that there is still a workplace mental health epidemic that cannot be ignored.”

Employers must not let up on their efforts and continue to focus on wellbeing work and making sure the right programs, such as EAPs, are in place, the experts say.

Communication about the pandemic, as well as having programs that can help employees, is key, McHugh said. And the constant communication must continue even in a post-pandemic world.

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“You can’t over-communicate on information around COVID or around the vaccine—and your overall wellbeing strategies,” she said. “You’ve got to make this normal, because, let’s face it, life is challenging. We need to make it part of our culture to help people along their journey.”

Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s 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. She can be reached at kmayer@lrp.com.