Why employers should act now on mental health

Workers’ risks of developing depression, anxiety and other mental issues have declined since last month, according to Total Brain’s latest Mental Health Index. But those risks still are significantly higher than they were at the start of COVID-19, proving the pandemic is causing serious–and chronic–mental health issues.

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“[Mental health] is significantly more negative overall,” Total Brain CEO Louis Gagnon said Friday during a webinar discussing the results, adding that female and younger employees have been hit harder by mental health issues. From July to August, the risk of anxiety among employees declined 7% while depression risk declined by 23%. Still, depression risk is 56% higher now than pre-pandemic, while anxiety risk is 45% higher than in February. The 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.

Chronic stress, anxiety and depression also are hurting workers’ cognitive performance, according to the index. Sustained attention, the driver of task completion, was down 31% in August when compared to pre-pandemic. And planning, the capacity to make decisions and drive strategy, was down 15% since February.

Though it’s positive that mental health risks have decreased some since last month, “the numbers themselves are shocking,” said Michael Thompson, president and CEO of the National Alliance. The numbers point to the fact that mental health issues are becoming more chronic and, potentially, a bigger issue that won’t go away any time soon.

Related: Depression risk is soaring for workers. How can HR help?

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Mental health issues will “far exceed the duration and impact of COVID itself,” said Garen Staglin, chairman of One Mind at Work. “There’s no vaccine for anxiety. There’s no vaccine for depression.” In addition to COVID-19 and its associated effects, a weak job market, racial tensions and the upcoming election are adding to employees’ anxieties. “All of this is impacting our lives,” he said.

Additionally, there are many more anxieties at home as the lines of domestic life blur with those of work and school, said Colleen McHugh, executive vice president of the American Health Policy Institute and strategic advisor for HR Policy Association.

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

The issues should be a warning to employers and to HR managers, in particular, to do more to help employees. “Wellness is one of the most critically important issues for employers–it’s unprecedented times for HR trying to help their employees,” McHugh said. Employers also need to encourage workers to take time off, which most employees have not been doing this year.

Although many employers are making strides on mental health benefits and other programs aimed to help employees, significant work remains.

“The time is now to take action,” Staglin said. “Don’t wait until the wakeup call of a suicide in your workplace demands you to take action. I promise if you don’t take action, you will have that wakeup call.”

Kathryn Mayer
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.