Why help is essential as Delta worsens employee mental health

A few months back, employee mental health seemed likely to start improving: Vaccines were here, COVID-19 infections were on the decline, and overall mental health data appeared to be stabilizing after declining for months. But now, with COVID-19 cases again surging across the country, employees are having a hard time emotionally.

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“People have been as adaptive as they can be over the past year and a half with the promise that there would be this light at the end of the tunnel. And then it turns out, there’s just more tunnel,” says Joe Grasso, director of workforce mental health for Lyra Health and a licensed clinical psychologist. “It definitely creates another layer of emotions–pessimism and cynicism layered on top of sadness and grief.”

So just how is the Delta variant affecting employee mental health? And what can and should employers do differently now? Here’s what Grasso had to say.

HRE: We last spoke in late spring when COVID news was more optimistic and the CDC had just lifted mask guidance. A lot has changed since then. Tell me about how the Delta variant and the new surge are affecting employees’ mental health.

Joe Grasso of Lyra

Grasso: People were feeling a sense of optimism and relief back in April, May, June. And then the Delta variant kind of put everyone’s plans on hold or put them in disarray. And what we keep hearing is just this general sense of disappointment, frustration and people being at their wit’s end. Employers are feeling it too in the sense that they’ve also been making plans and preparing their employees for return to the office and refocusing on Q3 and Q4 without the same level of distraction from COVID. And now employers are scrambling to basically make new plans and prepare employees to deal with the next stage of uncertainty. So it really feels like, in some ways, a continuation of this state of uncertainty we’ve been in early 2020. But in other ways, it feels worse in the sense that we’ve had the rug pulled out from under us.

Related: How return-to-work plans are evolving due to the Delta variant

HRE: How important is help from employers right now? And what help is needed?

Grasso: It’s essential. And it’s help in two different ways. It’s help in the form of access to individual mental healthcare for dealing with the individual fallout, signs of, or symptoms of, depression, anxiety, mental health concerns. But then there’s also the support that’s needed at the organizational level–supporting companies and how to navigate this time of uncertainty in a way that is promoting resilience in the workforce.

Resilience is tricky in the sense that if you just promote this message that employees should simply be more resilient, it can be very invalidating, like, ‘Oh, you’re just telling me to suck it up.’ But in reality, resilience should be framed as an empowerment tool. Because it’s really all that we’ve got; we’re all in the same boat together; we’re all facing the same or similar setbacks. We’re all facing uncertainty, we’re all facing disappointment. So resilience is kind of your best toolkit for dealing with setbacks. And we work with employers to help them train their employees and learn how to be more resilient, but do it in a way that’s empathetic and empowering, not dismissive to what people are going through.

HRE: So how do you promote that resilience?

Grasso: You have to make sure that mental health is highlighted in a way that doesn’t put the responsibility under the employee to fix all their problems, but make sure that employers are communicating this as a shared burden, and everyone has a role to play in getting through this uncertain time. That means leadership’s accountable, HR is accountable, managers are accountable, and individuals are too. Framing internal comms in a way that shows that everyone has a role to play in navigating these uncertain times, and then also training managers on how to be supportive, empathetic leaders–[and teaching them] how to identify signs of distress and point people to the right resources.

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HRE: You’re saying manager training is important. What about the mental health of managers or HR or other company leaders? How can they care for themselves?

Grasso: They have a responsibility to their team, but they also have a responsibility to themselves. If [a manager] is going to be effective in leading their team, they not only have to practice self-care for their own benefit but also to the benefit of their team because they want to model the behaviors that they want team members to emulate.

I think part of the struggle for managers is feeling the weight of employee wellbeing on their shoulders. They know that they have this responsibility to rally the team to keep morale as high as it can be and to be responsive to all these different bumps in the road that we’re facing. By this point, many managers are feeling exhausted. But they know that that responsibility can’t be minimized, just because they’re feeling tired.

HRE: What about mental health benefits and programs? Anything companies should be doing differently there that they haven’t?

Grasso: I think a lot of organizations are now fully on board with promoting mental health and destigmatizing mental health services. So for employers that have robust mental health benefits, the shift now is in promotion of those benefits. [It’s important to] highlight these benefits in a way that shows they’re for everybody.

In your communications and marketing and wellness programming, how can you highlight mental health in a way that shows the full spectrum of mental health needs, so that people understand mental health isn’t just about getting help for severe conditions, it’s about getting help, even at the earlier signs of distress. Maybe that’s dealing with day-to-day stress or parenting stress, early signs of burnout, or relationships.

HRE: What advice would give to employers who may have pressed pause on mental health efforts over the last few months or haven’t looked at it so aggressively lately?

Grasso: I would say employers who are not prioritizing mental health are risking negative impacts on their employees’ quality of life, but also their bottom line. We have so much data to show that when people are dealing with mental health distress and they don’t have adequate resources to address it, productivity goes down, presenteeism becomes a major problem, absenteeism worsens. Healthcare claims worsen, and people tend to be more prone to leaving the company.

The turnover issue is especially interesting, given that we’re seeing the Great Resignation with people who are burned out, companies leaving the workforce, sometimes, altogether. The writing is on the wall. Employees care about mental health, and they are now looking to their employer to see what they’re communicating and what they’re doing around promoting mental health. And the companies that aren’t doing much are going to lose out on top talent.

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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.