Managing the COVID stress crisis with finesse, compassion

With the pandemic causing new anxieties, employers need to rethink their benefits to provide a better mix of tools for managing stress, burnout and depression.
By: | November 18, 2020 • 3 min read

Everyone faces stress in their life, but the ripple effect of COVID-19 has caused new sources of financial, social and physical stress that go far beyond the norm. These stressors are lasting and pervasive, piling up to the point where they pose a significant threat to employee wellbeing if left ignored.

According to a new MetLife mental health study, employees say that their top stressors are financial issues (81%), job insecurity (77%), fear of catching the virus (60%) and social distancing (47%), followed by concerns about the presidential election, social justice issues and not having access to healthcare because of COVID-19. On top of this, separation of work/home life is increasingly blurring, especially for parents trying to juggle children at home.

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Never before have employees had to cope with so much at one time, and never before have benefits programs been tested across the spectrum of holistic health, including physical, financial, mental and social health. Per the study, nine in 10 employers say their organization is not completely ready for a mental health crisis, although one in five say the United States is in crisis right now.

This is the perfect opportunity for employers to rethink their benefits approach to provide a better mix of tools for managing stress, burnout and depression. This will not only help employees become more resilient and productive, but will also improve long-term business recovery.

Related: Employers are making mental health strides; Why they shouldn’t let up

Start with understanding key stressors

Anxiety is at an all-time high, with 5.5 million employees saying they no longer feel mentally healthy and 38% of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders, an increase of 27% since 2019 (pre-pandemic). In addition, 41% of employees say they feel stressed, burned out or depressed at work on a regular basis.

Financial stress is the No. 1 driver of overall mental health stress, up 29% since 2019. The biggest sources of financial stress rest in concerns about long-term savings and medical bills/expenses followed by fears about stock market volatility and retirement plans.

Related: Employees looking for help as pandemic increases financial stress

These concerns, combined with all the other top stressors listed above, are creating a workforce at the tipping point. This is compounded by the fact that not everyone can “self-diagnose” the warning signs of mental health. When asked, employees don’t always think they have a problem but say they have specific symptoms. Most employees report at least five key signs of burnout—such as feeling emotionally and physically drained—and at least five signs of depression, such as feeling tired, hopeless or unable to sleep.

Next, create an environment of support

As they plan for business recovery, 76% of employers say resilience is very important. Compared to least-resilient employees, those who are most resilient have better mental health, are more likely to be holistically well, and are less likely to be burned out or stressed.

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To help return employees to good health, benefits plans should try to span every area of holistic health since financial, mental, physical and social health are interrelated. Organizational support tools can include effective tools like employee assistance programs that offer everything from financial consultations; to counseling for stress management, work/life and substance abuse; to childcare and legal support. Employees with EAP access show 17% more resilience than employees without EAPs.

Insurance programs (like life, disability, hospital indemnity, critical illness) may also help employees boost financial security.

It is one thing to offer the right mix of tools, yet quite another to create an open culture that makes mental health a priority. This culture also should build awareness about available resources, educate employees about the warning signs and remove the stigma of asking for help.

The ability of employers to manage the looming mental health crisis with finesse and compassion can only help drive loyalty, productivity and long-term success.

Tracey Ferstler, PhD, is assistant vice president, head of return to health, U.S. claims, at MetLife.