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How Approaches to Mental Health in the Workplace Have Changed

May 10, 2022 Employee Experience
scott clark
By Scott Clark

Research published by financial services firm The Hartford one year into the pandemic showed that 27% of US workers struggle with depression or anxiety most days or a few times a week. That number was up from 20% the year prior, in March 2020. According to the 2022 Emerging Trends in Health Care Survey, conducted in March 2022 by insurance and advisory company Willis Towers Watson, the COVID-19 pandemic and the move to remote work have contributed to a worsening of mental health among employees and their families.

Most employers understand that the deteriorating mental health of their employees can have a negative financial impact on their company, but what are organizations doing to address the issue? Have approaches and attitudes to mental health in the workplace changed over the past two years?

Recognizing the Importance of Mental Health

For the past two years, there's been numerous reports on the rise in mental health issues among both adults and children. The severity of the situation has brought about increased awareness of the importance of mental health and the need to address its challenges in the workplace. 

Yet, according to The Hartford's 2021 Future of Benefits report, there remains a gap between the number of companies that believe they are doing what is required to support their employees’ mental health and the way employees perceive their employers' programs.

According to the report, 82% of employers believe their employees have more access to mental health resources than in previous years, while only 50% of workers agree. Similarly, 79% of employers said their employees’ mental health had improved due to the company’s resources, but only 35% of workers found this to be true. More specifically, the survey showed that US employees feel their organizations are falling short on access, flexibility and resources. 

Liz Hall, chief people officer at event marketing company Splash, said the way a company approaches mental health has a huge role in how its culture is perceived by employees.

"In this day and age, with the growing awareness over the last two years, it’s evident that potential candidates and current employees expect mental health to be addressed directly by their employers. If a business falls behind on this, candidates and employees will have great concerns about the company culture,” said Hall.

She said an increasing number of companies are intentionally embedding wellness programs into their culture, by reevaluating benefits and perks beyond health insurance — offering therapy programs, time-off programs, alternative work schedules, temporarily reduced hours, training and educational opportunities, and more initiatives that build empathy in the workplace.

Related Article: Employee Mental Health and Wellbeing Are No Game

Employers Expanding Mental Health Options

The Willis Towers Watson survey revealed that 94% of employers plan to prioritize their management of healthcare benefit costs over the next two years, and 87% said they will focus on improving mental health benefits. As the pandemic wanes, virtual care is likely to become an essential and long-lasting feature of employers’ healthcare strategies. By the fourth quarter of 2023, 95% of employers are expected to offer virtual care for medical and behavioral health issues. 

Jennifer Strauel, chief people and diversity officer at arrivia, a travel technology company, said her company has responded to the need for greater access to mental healthcare by providing virtual care options.

"Arrivia offers monthly live virtual sessions with a licensed therapist to employees at no charge,” she said, adding that the company has also expanded its benefits to include virtual mental health visits and text-with-a-therapist options.

Other ways that Strauel’s business revamped its mental health options for employees included:

  • Expanding their Employee Assistance Program to international locations and doubling the number of treatment sessions covered.
  • Promoting mental health services to employees via email, home mailers, intranet and webinars.
  • Certifying HR and other leaders as mental health first aid providers.
  • Training leaders on recognizing and assisting employees who are in crisis or struggling.
  • Instituting “check-in chats” with employees working remotely, including specific questions on emotional wellbeing.
  • Training leaders on managing a virtual workforce.
  • Expanding the company's free wellness program offerings to include mental, emotional, physical and financial well-being education and activities.
  • Moving to unlimited PTO for all US corporate employees to allow more time to relax and rejuvenate or care for family needs.

Related Article: What You Can Do About the Mental Health Crisis at Work

Where Empathy and Technology Meet

LouAnn Bala, chief nursing officer and vice president of content strategy and clinical programs at Get Well, said organizations are experimenting with innovative ways to provide mental health benefits to employees, which includes providing access to mental health apps.

“Many companies are also beginning to take behavioral health into consideration, and we’re seeing a growing number of corporations offering access to mental health benefits, such as therapy and coaching sessions, as part of their employee healthcare package,” said Bala, adding that there is still, however, a lack of timely access to quality and affordable services worldwide.

This is where personalized digital technology and the power of human empathy can really bring about real and measurable change, she said. In 2021, the American Psychological Association estimated there were anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 mental health apps available for download. While the use of mental health apps for self-help has greatly increased, without mental health professionals, many employees are still not receiving the help they need.

“While it’s certainly good to see the myriad of self-help options out there, apps alone won't solve the problem," said Bala.

As organizations plan and implement programs to support employee mental health, Bala recommended leaders keep in mind the importance of establishing a synergy between these mental health apps and qualified clinical resources to close the loop between self-guided care and timely clinical support.

Related Article: The Critical Role Technology Plays in Company Culture

Eliminating the Stigma

The stigma associated with mental health issues can prevent some people from seeking help. The Hartford’s report indicated that 72% of employers acknowledged that stigma, and 81% said that leadership encourages mental health conversations. There is still work to be done, however, as only 48% of employees agreed.

Reportedly, the stigma is even greater when the mental health issue is addiction, but thankfully, that is also beginning to change.

"The stigma of addiction keeps many employees from seeking help, which is why they call it the 'sickness of silence,'" said Cheryl Brown Merriwether, vice president and executive director of the International Center for Addiction and Recovery Education (ICARE). “By destigmatizing mental health issues, everyone, including managers, is more comfortable sharing their own challenges, which enables them to be better managers by being more empathetic and attuned to the emotional needs and potential problems of those who report to them, which would otherwise go unnoticed and untreated.”

Janine Yancey, founder and CEO of HR company Emtrain, said there are changes in the way organizations approach employee mental health. Over the past two years, the issues related to mental health continued to lose their stigma, and leaders are much more readily able to address them, she said. 

"This is partly driven by the role of the pandemic, which has been particularly difficult for those who may have already been struggling with mental health issues,” said Yancey. “With many working from home, often for the first time, feelings of isolation, stress and powerlessness have exacerbated anxieties and other conditions. That holds true even for those who wouldn’t be classified as having mental health issues."

Management is now taking more notice and implementing steps provide the type of support that acknowledges both physical and mental wellbeing of their employees, she added.

Related Article: How Companies Can Support Mental Health as Employees Return to the Office

Increasing Awareness of Addiction in the Workplace

According to a 2020 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13% of Americans had started or increased substance use as a way of coping with stress or emotions related to COVID-19. Similarly, Sierra Tucson, an addiction treatment center in Arizona, released a Self-Medication Nation survey of 1,011 US employees which showed that 25% of those polled had participated in a Zoom or Microsoft Teams meeting while they were under the influence of marijuana, alcohol or other recreational drugs. 

“COVID has had a devastating impact on employee mental health causing extreme stress, anxiety and depression,” said Merriwether. “Many employees are reaching for alcohol and other substances to cope, leading to escalating rates of addiction, overdosing and suicide. Smart employers realize healthy employees are their most valuable asset and are investing heavily in workplace wellness initiatives to keep their people physically and mentally well.”  

Fortunately, many organizations have acknowledged that mental health problems such as drug abuse need to be addressed proactively.

“Since COVID, the concept of awareness and prevention has taken a front seat in the fight to mitigate workplace addiction,” said Merriwether. "In the past two years, HR departments have become increasingly empowered to look for signs of employee distress and burnout before they become issues."

She said HR leaders are in a great position to help reduce stress levels by promoting workplace balance initiatives such as mental health days and flexible working arrangements. Employee benefits can also be broadened to include free behavioral therapy with licensed counselors as well as certified recovery coaches.

Related Article: Addressing Substance Abuse in the Remote Workplace

Go Gently With the Return to the Office

Slightly more than one-third (36%) of respondents in a June 2021 McKinsey survey indicated that the return to the office after remote work had a negative impact on their mental health, and almost half (49%) who had not yet returned to the office anticipated that going back will have negative mental health impacts. 

Nearly a year later, in April 2022, a Korn Ferry survey revealed things are getting worse. An even higher percentage of employees, 64%, said a return to the office will have a negative impact on their mental health. Additionally, more than half said that it will be harder to go back to the office than it was having to transition to remote work at the beginning of the pandemic.

“For some, even a return to the office has driven anxieties to an unhealthy place," said Yancey. "By letting teams know that their mental health is a true concern, and taking steps to support a sense of well-being, employees will not only be more engaged during work hours but feel more connected to their jobs as an individual and not just an employee."

The pandemic, along with the return to the office, has caused an increase in mental health challenges for employees, but it’s also brought a heightened awareness of the importance of mental health in the workplace. Providing access to mental health resources, from virtual care solutions and mental health apps to workplace flexibility and behavioral therapy counselors, will be key to fighting this illness and overcoming the consequences of the pandemic.

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