5 Tips for Helping Employees Manage Their Mental Health During COVID-19

By: | May 8, 2020

Terri L. Rhodes is CEO of the Disability Management Employer Coalition. Terri was an Absence and Disability Management Consultant for Mercer, and also served as Director of Absence and Disability for Health Net and Corporate IDM Program Manager for Abbott Laboratories.

For more than 20 years, DMEC has recognized May’s Mental Health Awareness Month. We even dedicate a full edition of DMEC’s @Work magazine to this topic.

This year’s Mental Health Month is like no other in my lifetime. The coronavirus pandemic, the stay-at-home directives to contain it and the economic downturn has had an impact on everyone’s mental health in some way.

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Stress and anxiety are at an all-time high.

The Disaster Distress helpline, a federal crisis hotline, has seen more than a 300% increase in calls, and suicide hotlines in the Los Angeles area alone have seen an 8,000% increase in calls since the pandemic started. Alcohol sales have increased, cannabis sales are up, and when sales increase, so does consumption.

A recent MetLife survey conducted in early April found that two out of three employees are feeling more stressed than before the pandemic.

Depression was widespread even before the disruption to normal patterns of social interaction. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 8.1% of Americans 20 years of age and older have depression in any two-week period.

It is also closely related to alcohol and other drug abuse, overeating, and other behavioral health issues. Untreated depression and other mental illness wreak havoc on individual lives, family budgets, and organizational finances.

Most employers offer resources to address mental and behavioral health. But with many employees working from home, these resources can be out of sight, and most likely, also out of mind.

So, what can employers do to help distanced employees address mental and behavioral health issues? Here are some suggestions.

1) Bold Messaging

One of the more difficult aspects of mental and behavioral health issues is that many, if not most, try to self-manage.

Stress, anxiety, and “being down” are often viewed as normal occurrences in life. While these conditions can and do impact personal relationships and work performance, it often takes some kind of crisis to lead an employee to seek help.

There are many reasons for this, including stigma. Employees fear they will be treated differently if their employer knows they have a mental health need.

While workplace stigma has declined, we still have a way to go before mental illness is simply illness, like any other.

However, we are in the midst of a crisis. Life is anything but normal now. Many employees are working at home while their spouses, significant others, and children are sheltered with them. Parents have become teachers, and they’re stressed. Feelings are running high from uncertainty to fearfulness, which produces anxiety.

This means employees are more likely to be open to consistent messaging about resources available to them to help with mental, family, and financial issues.

Now more than ever, employers should use bold communication to let employees know they’re not on their own. There are resources available to help.

Make sure company intranets include a centralized repository for benefits and resources, especially for the remote workers. Send reminders via email and post reminders on the company login pages. Engage vendors to support your workforce.

2) Senior Leadership

Supportive and informative communication from senior leaders is important in the best of times. In uncertain times like these, it can be especially important in helping employees deal with the stress and anxiety that accompanies new routines and demands.

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One of the more important variables in employee use of company mental and behavioral health resources is communication from the top. Senior leaders should acknowledge the times we are in and inform employees about resources available.

This will set the stage for the kind of bold messaging mentioned above. Senior leaders should be performing routine check-ins with direct reports and then have managers and supervisor do the same. Take time to ask about personal life, families, and what they are doing during their “off times.”

3) Webinars

Employers can utilize vendors that offer webinars and Q&A sessions on mental health and other issues impacting the workforce.

These webinars include topics such as effective communication and how to cope with stress or anxiety in a positive way, while avoiding increased alcohol and drug use and unhealthy food consumption.

Webinars designed for managers include training on best practices, including keeping consistent one-on-one meetings and hosting fun, virtual meetups that allow for human interaction with coworkers.

Employers can also offer benefits like virtual yoga and meditation classes. These are low-cost ways to substitute for on-site wellness benefits increasingly offered by employers.

4) Apps

There are several low-cost apps on the market that offer stress and well-being assistance. Many have a mindfulness component to them.

Employees are more apt to use a phone app than call into a customer service number to access information through the EAP. Many are available for children as well.

5) Better Use of EAPs 

Nearly all employers with the resources to ensure employees can work from home have an employee assistance program (EAP). Yet use of EAPs is very low. According to a survey by Guardian Life Insurance, in 87% of workplaces, 20% or less of employees have used EAP services.

This is largely because employers do not communicate about them as effectively as they should. When employers do effectively communicate and promote EAPs, the results are impressive.

Although detailed EAP performance statistics are limited, documented studies suggest employer-sponsored EAPs can reduce company disability, medical, pharmacy, and worker’s compensation costs.

The current situation lends itself to EAP use.

Since so many EAP programs are already conducted online or via telephonic interviews, remote employees can more easily integrate them into the rest of their lives. Calling into the EAP, while working from home, might feel more confidential than calling from the workplace. Employers need to continue to talk about the EAPs, normalize their use within the context of today’s crisis, and assure their use is confidential and encouraged.

Company Practices

Employers have revised and created new policies for time off related to the COVID-19 pandemic, like expanded sick leave and PTO, and loosening some protocols around performance reviews and bonuses.

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Many remote employees are working longer hours at home than they would in the office. And while this might be great for productivity, it can interfere with household obligations which can increase stress and other negative mental health conditions.

Employees already felt anxious over managing their families and being productive, and that has only heightened during this unusual time. Employers should encourage employees to maintain work-life balance and not make employees feel guilty when they hear children in the background.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced large-scale change over a very short period of time. That kind of change creates stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental and behavioral health challenges.

Even when the virus is under control, workplaces will likely never return to “normal.” Social distancing protocols, staggered work shifts, more teleworking, etc., all promise continued change and the stresses that accompany it.

Mental and behavioral health resources are more important than ever. This is the time for employers make sure employees know what is available and get the help they need now and into the future. &

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]