The COVID-19 pandemic has forced individuals at all levels of society to reexamine their lives. In the American workplace, questions have arisen about the future of remote work, whether vaccination requirements and similar policies are necessary, and how companies can adapt to this challenging time. The pandemic also has employers reexamining the needs of their employees. Mental health has been placed front and center in the pandemic discourse as studies show a mental health crisis building within the American workforce. The emphasis on mental health wellness has raised a new question, “How are workplaces responding to the mental health needs of their employees?”
The Toll of the Pandemic on Mental Health
New research from the Society for Human Resource Management found that between 22 and 35 percent of American employees were experiencing depression symptoms while living through the pandemic. In particular, employees pointed to feeling emotionally drained and having trouble with concentration – two mental health symptoms that are directly connected to employee productivity and performance. Burnout was reported from 41 percent of survey respondents. The picture of mental health in the pandemic is further complicated, when factoring in concerns like infection anxiety, economic uncertainty, and the pros and cons associated with working from home.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer resources on healthy ways for individuals to cope with stress. Their recommendations include an emphasis on physical health, downtime to unwind, and safe ways of connecting with loved ones. Healthy lifestyle changes can boost our physical and mental wellbeing, but prolonged mental health conditions can be detrimental. More and more employers are seeing the value of implementing a mental health strategy in their workplace policies and benefit offerings.
How Employers Can Support Employee Mental Health
Addressing the current mental health crisis begins with workplaces and employers. Mental wellness is just as much about larger external factors, like the workplace, as it is individual struggles and lifestyle adjustments. In order to support employee mental health, employers must take an approach that offers infrastructure for mental health management at every level of the business. Here are a few tips for employers:
Revaluate your benefits: The pandemic has prompted many employers to add mental health resources to their employee benefit offerings. Large employers, like Starbucks, have rolled out therapy benefits for their employees. Other options have included utilizing telemedicine to encourage online mental health counseling or offering employee subscriptions to mental wellness apps, like the popular Headspace meditation app. Resources may also include employee assistance programs (EAPs) for general support.
Communicate and connect: It’s difficult to take such an individual experience as mental wellbeing and address it on the wider company level. One handy tool is employee surveys. Staying in communication with employees is a great way to gauge feelings on the working environment, spot any trending mental health concerns, and respond before the problem gets out of hand. Employees that hear from their employers often report feeling supported and cared for, as well as more comfortable in their job security.
Show empathy: It’s important to understand that employees are likely feeling overwhelmed and anxious about the pandemic, and the financial, professional, and personal challenges that come with these circumstances. Making mental care and resources an open part of communications directed to employees will help them feel heard and show that employers are invested in the wellbeing of their workers. Making sure that employees are aware of the resources available to them can provide reassurance and comfort.
Encourage balance: Many companies have embraced a flexible approach to work. From adaptable hours, to fully remote or hybrid workforces, employers have created environments that encourage employees to take time for themselves and their families. This has revolutionized the way we work, but with the pros come the cons. Working from home has led some employees to put in longer hours and not be able to effectively “turn off” at the end of the day. It is important to help employees set boundaries and to encourage that they take time off and respect work/life balance. Flexibility and empathy are critical, at this juncture.
The Future of Mental Wellness in the Workplace
The spotlight that COVID-19 put on mental wellness in the workplace revealed that many employers did not have the benefits, programs, or culture in place to address mental health matters. Just as employers have focused on physical wellbeing and financial stability, it’s necessary for there to be help for employees with issues like anxiety and depression. This is especially true when considering how much mental health impacts employee productivity and performance, as well as company culture overall.
Even though healthcare benefits geared towards mental wellbeing have been increasing in popularity for the last couple of years, there are still plenty of employers that were slow to make it a priority. Companies that do not offer adequate mental health resources see higher turnover rates. Fortunately, the pandemic has created a sense of urgency for employers to add resources for mental wellness and care. Of those employers surveyed by the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, 53 percent reported a pivot to emotional and mental wellness programs for their employees because of the pandemic. Telemedicine options, wellness apps, and employee-assistance programs are all being offered, and therapy is being added to many traditional healthcare benefits.
Mental health issues were on the rise, even before the COVID-19 pandemic and will not disappear after the pandemic ends. The positive outcome of this challenging time is that it has allowed employees and employers alike to make a return to the fundamentals. The future of worker wellbeing is focused on a more holistic picture of work-life balance and mental wellbeing, in addition to physical health and care.
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