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

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The coronavirus pandemic has put a spotlight on mental health like never before, with a slew of startling statistics revealing the effects of the crisis: The majority of employees say they are dealing with some type of mental health issue as a result of the pandemic. Many are scared about their physical health, their childcare responsibilities, new realities of social distancing and remote work. Financial stressors are sky-high, with employees worried about losing their jobs, having less money or seeing their 401(k) balances drop. The vast majority of employees say it’s the most stressful time of their career–even more stressful than major events like Sept. 11 and the 2008 Great Recession.

“It’s difficult for the most resilient of us right now. And for those who are vulnerable in any number of ways, it’s that much more challenging,” says LuAnn Heinen, vice president of wellbeing and workforce strategy at the Business Group on Health. “Those who have been struggling with mental health conditions are significantly disadvantaged with COVID. There are new stressors, family stressors, work–all of that and everyone adjusting to a new reality. It’s very difficult.”

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“In many ways, it’s shining a light on flaws that existed before we knew about COVID-19,” says Anne Richter, a health management consultant at Willis Towers Watson. Some employers were focused on a full spectrum of wellbeing, including emotional, financial and mental, she says, but many fell short when it came to helping employees with such issues as anxiety, depression and stress.

“In many ways, [coronavirus is] shining a light on flaws that existed before we knew about COVID-19″

Those shortcomings ran the gamut: a lack of resources offered; lackluster communication about existing offerings; and a near-unanimous view that the subject was too taboo for the workplace, insiders say. HR departments, often viewed as the heart of the organization, were often bogged down with other administrative tasks and competing priorities, while meaningful change to address the issue was slow to catch on.

And while mental health has been gaining employer attention in the last couple of years, with more noticing its dramatic impacts on employees and many broadening their views of workplace wellbeing as a result, the changes were not widespread before the pandemic hit.

“We already had high rates of depression and anxiety, as well as stigma and access problems that prevented many from getting care,” Heinen says. “And now all that’s compounded. It’s a really dramatic situation.”

With the coronavirus pandemic putting the spotlight on a growing number of mental health conditions and how they affect employees, experts say companies need to step up and take a hard look at gaps or flaws in their coverage.  But as employers turn to new programs and start to shift their culture as a result of the new environment, will things change permanently?

Flaws in the System

Mental health coverage has been a rising employee benefit for the last couple of years, industry experts say, often landing on lists of top areas of focus for employers. Still, despite a rallying cry from many experts–and employees who increasingly asked employers for help–a lot of companies were slow to make it a priority.

While almost all employers believe improving mental health in the workplace is good for their business, 17% acknowledge not offering any resources at all, according to a survey of 1,379 U.S. business decision-makers, including HR and benefits leaders, from Transamerica Center for Health Studies. Results were released in December.

At a striking rate, employees, too, feel coverage is missing: 65% of workers say they don’t feel their employer offers benefits or programs that help support or improve their mental wellbeing, according to MetLife research just released in April.

Specifically, only 13% of companies provide on-site stress-management programs, and just 11% provide mindfulness or meditation benefits, according to the latest available data from the Society for Human Resource Management. While employee-assistance programs have largely been the mental health benefit of choice for employers, only 79% of companies offer them. And, for the most part, utilization is low: Usually less than 10% of employees use EAPs, according to SHRM.

Apps from third parties that focus on and promote different areas of mental health, from meditation to sleep to emotional resiliency, have helped fill the gaps in recent years, though some employers were hesitant to invest in those resources.

“I have clients I work with that have a vast array of resources–apps, vendors, programs, communication channels–all aimed at building emotional resilience that you would fall back on in times like this,” Richter says. “Then I have other employers who say, ‘That’s not really our thing. We have a workforce that will likely be here maybe for two years, tops, and then they’ll move on. We have high turnover; we’re not going to invest in our employees.’ ”

That’s especially prevalent in industries like retail, she says, where many companies experience 40%-45% employee turnover year-over-year.

Communication about mental health benefits or offerings has lagged as well, resulting in workers who have no idea what kind of help their employer provides. For instance, 55% of employees said their employer did not have, or they were unsure if their employer had, a specific program, initiative or policy in place to address mental health, according to Unum research from last year. EAPs, for instance, aren’t a benefit mentioned during annual enrollment because employees don’t need to reelect them as they would health insurance, Richter notes. So, without significant reminders from employers, most employees don’t remember such programs or even know they exist.

One of the biggest shortcomings in employers’ mental health efforts was being unprepared, unequipped or simply reluctant to address the issue. Just 25% of managers in the U.S. have been trained in referring employees to mental health resources, and more than half of people are unsure how they would help a colleague who came to them with a mental health issue, according to Unum.

“[One] crack in the system we’ve struggled with previously is this notion that, when it comes to issues like mental health, the onus is on employees to navigate and figure it out themselves,” says Reetu Sandhu, a manager at the Limeade Institute, which conducts research about wellbeing. “This comes from these old-school perceptions like, ‘That sounds like a personal problem,’ or, ‘Leave your personal issues at the door.’”

Kathie Patterson, CHRO at Detroit-based bank Ally Financial, agrees.

Kathie Patterson is CHRO of Ally Financial.

“We have not created an environment where we talk about this openly,” she says, adding that employee mental health has long been “one of the most undiscussable items” for employers. “When you look at the statistics of employees who have some type of challenge, whether anxiety or depression, it was just something people don’t discuss.”

Meanwhile, many employees don’t feel comfortable speaking openly about their mental health struggles. Even if they do feel comfortable disclosing an issue, 47% who do so have experienced a negative consequence, Limeade research finds. That finding demonstrates a “major flaw” in employer mental health attention–lack of trust, Sandhu says.

“Historically, it hasn’t just been a taboo subject within the workplace, but it has been a taboo topic in our society in general. So, leaders or employers may have not known how to address mental health,” she says. “It’s been all too often pushed under the rug. Now, however, we are starting to evolve and recognize the importance of talking about and sharing these types of human experiences and supporting the whole employee.”

Employers Rush to Help

The pandemic has created a sense of urgency for employers to add resources and catch up quickly, as experts point out just how widespread mental health issues are and as employers begin to see the effects stress and anxiety have on their workforce.

Richter says the amount of calls she’s been fielding from employers asking about adding or enhancing mental health resources has been “overwhelming.”

“They are obviously very concerned about the distress that their employees are sharing with them, and they have a desire to help minimize that distress, so they’re looking at programmatic alternatives, whether it’s EAPs or communication, or how to push information to them,” she says.

Many companies have quickly pivoted to adding resources. 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.

Virtual care, apps and EAPs are all on offer. “Employer-provided mental health resources have always been important, but many organizations are now realizing the direct benefits these resources can have on their employees,” Limeade’s Sandhu says.

Target, for instance, added online resources to help employees improve their wellbeing. While workers at the retailer already had access to five counseling sessions in their EAP, employees now are getting a year of access to resources from provider Big Health: Daylight, its website and app that aim to help users navigate stress and worry; and Sleepio, its app that provides tools to improve sleep. Professional-services firm PwC introduced wellbeing coaching sessions where employees can reach out to a professional coach to discuss anything that may be causing them stress.

(Image credit: Starbucks)

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.

Starbucks is also encouraging employees to use resources it already offers, such as Headspace, a meditation and mindfulness app that was rolled out as a benefit in January. Now, more than 68,000 employees are using it. “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.”

Other employers that didn’t have EAPs before are quickly looking into adding them, Richter says.

Meanwhile, Headspace says it’s seen a 400%-plus increase in requests from companies seeking support for their employees’ mental health since mid-March. 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.

Overall, employers are, in a way, going back to basics, Limeade’s Sandhu says.

“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,” she says. “Simply put, mental health and our fundamental human needs are no longer aspects of work that can be deprioritized.”

Changing Workplace Culture

A majority of employers that add or make changes to resources in response to COVID-19 will likely do so long-term, many experts predict. That especially might occur if employers get positive feedback from employees who stay healthy, more productive and tend to have better morale as a result. Beefing up communication about available benefits offerings also stands to be a permanent move.

But perhaps the biggest change that may become permanent is simply making it OK to address the issue, industry experts say. Many employers that had unspoken policies to not talk about or address employee struggles–with the exception of pointing them to an EAP–are now changing their tune. Compelled to support employees who are struggling in a new way during the pandemic–on top of the employees who already had mental health issues–they’re encouraging openness and asking managers to lead with empathy.

“Now, businesses are checking in and asking colleagues how they are doing, as well as lending a helping hand to offer care and support during this time,” Sandhu says. “This has been a valuable lesson.”

[click_to_tweet tweet=”How can #HR improve #companyculture and encourage #employees to open up around #mentalhealth? @mayereditor takes a deep dive” quote=”Tweet me!” theme=”style3″]

Willis Towers Watson’s Richter adds that employers are learning that 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.”

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Ally Financial’s Patterson says while the company had mental health resources on offer, the pandemic has caused her–and other company leaders–not only to talk about employees’ problems and stresses more, but to think about how to help in a new way. Part of it is about being more open, she says.

“Moving to a broader understanding around wellness got us thinking about how we provide mental support for employees. That was always a little part of our benefits strategy to begin with, but nowadays, it’s even more critical,” she says.

A lot of her strategy 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.”

Although the pandemic is casting a light on what needs to be done now, in a tumultuous environment, many hope the changes are here to stay even when things reopen and life gets more or less back to normal. Mental health issues and stress were already on the rise among employees before the pandemic, and they certainly won’t just disappear post-pandemic, experts say.

“This has forced us to make changes and to make it OK to talk about struggles like these,” Richter says. “I hope it doesn’t change for just this tiny bit of time.”

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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.