What Employers Can Do About Employee Mental Health

Mental Health Impact of COVID-19: Past, Present, Future

The past year has presented unique emotional, professional, and social challenges. Employers are wondering: is this the new normal? Does it make sense to implement changes for employee well-being? 

We may be able to find the answer in history. One corollary, the SARs virus, had significant and lasting mental health repercussions. Most common diagnoses included PTSD (54.5% of survivors), depression (39.0%), somatoform pain disorders (36.4%), and panic disorders (32.5%). These mental health issues persisted for at least four years following the events. The mental health impact of COVID-19 may be even farther-reaching and longer-lasting.

But mental health is not new. COVID-19 has simply brought it to the forefront of our minds. We shouldn’t forget that even at pre-COVID levels

Let’s say that at pre-COVID levels, ~20% of your 200-person company, or 40 people, have an anxiety disorder. Imagine that these are some of your best-performing employees: leaders in management, sales, engineering, HR, operations. Pandemic or not, we want to support them.

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Employees want mental health education

The first thing employers can do is recognize mental health as something we all experience, albeit at different times and levels. Consider grief. Some may experience grief after losing a loved one to Coronavirus. Others may experience grief over a lost goal or relationship. Not all of us will go through grief in the same way or at the same time. It’s a spectrum on which we constantly move up and down.

Regardless of where employees are on a spectrum, one thing can help all: education. A recent study from October 2020 assessed the demand for education around psychology and coping interventions during COVID-19. Of over 40,000 survey respondents, 42% wanted psychological knowledge. Of those with anxiety and depression symptoms, 70% demanded such psychological knowledge.

While employers may think that busy employees don’t have time for additional training, the reality is that employees want this education. Those experiencing symptoms especially recognize that traditional degrees failed to prepare us with psychological coping skills. Modern leaders further understand that upskilling in emotional awareness is the basis for both mental health and effective management. 

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Preventive mental health education can cure and connect

I advocate for a “flu shot” for mental health: preventive education that trains us to cope, communicate, and problem-solve in mild situations before they become serious. 

Stress is contagious like the flu. Animals can sense panic in their peers, and humans can smell stress in one another’s sweat. Our mental health doesn’t operate in a silo. It affects, and is affected by, every facet of our lives: our self, career, and relationships. Stress from home affects our work, and vice versa, “infecting” colleagues, spouses, children. This even trickles down to the next generation: Adverse Childhood Experiences are a major cause for mental health problems later in life. 

Preventive education can not only help the individual. It can also raise the health of the herd. Learning about our own psychology can improve the mental health of all those around us.

Mental health education can also bring us together. Team-building trainings that focus on core human emotions and experiences, like grief, conflict, indecision, or regret, are relatable across all job titles and functions. Common education can make us all healthier, and more connected. 

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Digital mental health tools improve affordability and uptake

In the October 2020 study, respondents wanted education and training. But how should that training be conducted? When asked, respondents said they wanted to obtain this psychological knowledge through digital mediums. The top three methods people requested were via TV broadcast (73.6%), online training courses (43.4%), and online counseling (28.0%). 

Digital options are not just preferred. They’re also practical for financial and usability reasons. 

(1) Affordability. The average cost of depression to an employer’s medical bills is $10,836/employee/year. Meanwhile, digital self-help can cost less than $50/employee/year. Outfitting an entire 200-person company with digital resources costs the equivalent of treatment for one. 

(2) Adoption. Digital self-help lowers barriers to adoption, especially for those more private or independent. One study on men’s mental health showed that 73% of male respondents believed they needed to solve their own problems. For many cultures and personalities, self-serve options are more palatable.

(3) Immediacy. Inconvenience is one of the biggest barriers to EAP uptake. If we don’t have solutions at our fingertips, we often put off problems until it’s become a crisis. Digital tools can make well-being a just-in-time, continuous practice that nips problems in the bud.

Concluding thoughts

Mental health has always been, and will continue to be, a problem post-COVID. Employees report a desire for mental health education to gain psychological knowledge. They also prefer that training to be delivered digitally. Digital tools help companies save cost, serve diverse demographics, and provide more immediate, just-in-time care before issues worsen. By thinking of mental health care like a flu shot, companies can not only improve employee well-being, but also the health of whole teams and families, all while bringing us closer with common knowledge.

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March 9, 2021
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