Your Employees’ Wellbeing is Suffering: Here’s How You Can Help
You’re interested in improving employee wellbeing during the pandemic and are ready to create your company’s wellness plan.
How are other businesses and corporations supporting their employees mental health and wellness?
How can you support work from home or hybrid employees?
In this article, we will answer these questions and more. Keep reading to learn the best approach to supporting your employee’s wellbeing post pandemic.
Even with flexible work arrangements, a job continues to be the place where most adults in the U.S. spend the majority of their day. Now that many of those jobs take place through a computer screen, experts are beginning to see the outcomes of remote work environments on employees’ wellbeing.
A full year through a global pandemic, the reality of what shifting work norms has done to employees wellbeing and mental health is just now surfacing. Here are some of the statistics:
- Reported symptoms of anxiety tripled from 8.1% in 2019 to 25.5% in 2020.
- Reported symptoms of depression nearly quadrupled from 6.5% in 2019 to 24.3% in 2020.
- 83% of U.S. workers report feeling negative emotions that they associate with poor mental health.
- 81% of U.S. workers have experienced mental health issues, which they believe are due to the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the World Health Organization, the economic impact on the global economy of lost productivity due to depressed or anxious employees is $1 trillion a year. While the loss is acute, solutions are both available and have measured benefits: the WHO research indicates a return on investment of $4 for every $1 invested in treatment of common mental disorders.
With new light shed on the reality of mental health issues among U.S. adults, leaders are seeking effective ways to observe and offer help for this aspect of employee health. Because the reports of declining employee health track with the spread of the coronavirus, it’s a valuable place to begin.
What Caused the Decline in Employee Wellbeing During the COVID-19 Pandemic?
The COVID-19 pandemic produced unprecedented disruption. Mask mandates, enforced social distancing, unemployment, and economic downturn were the documented outcomes that began almost as soon as the virus hit. It doesn’t take a skilled analyst to understand that this created severe challenges for families and professionals in the U.S.
According to the American Journal of Managed Care, here is how employees self-describe their stress:
- 70% of surveyed employees say that the COVID-19 pandemic has represented the most stressful season of their professional careers.
- 88% of workers describe their ongoing stress as moderate to extreme.
Anti-anxiety, anti-insomnia and antidepressant medication prescriptions increased by 21% within the first month of the pandemic.
The thing employees point to as causing their distress include:
- Fears of lost work or unemployment.
- Fears of lowered wages.
- An impending economic downturn.
- Concern over the logistics of working from home and educating their children.
Employees are suffering from burnout in record-breaking numbers. It is important for them to understand that they are not alone.
Enforced social distancing, unemployment, and the economic downturn were the main documented catalysts causing a decline in employee wellbeing during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Going Public: Acknowledging Employee Health Issues
Perhaps more openly discussed than ever, employee health issues have clearly risen in tandem with the rest of the damage and devastation of the virus. Prevalence has led to some normalizing, which is a powerful defense against the isolation many people with these struggles feel. In many companies mental health is less of a “suffer in silence” issue than it used to be.
One of the most visible admissions in the past year was made by Lenny Mendonca, a former chief economic advisor to the California Governor. His sudden resignation on April 10, 2020, sent shockwaves through the system. He wrote a long and personal editorial column describing an ongoing battle with depression.
The added responsibilities to his position in public service meant 80 hour work weeks and insufficient sleep. He chalks up his mental health issue to one thing: “I am human.” It is helpful when leaders are open in acknowledging this widespread issue. Employees who feel this is normal, and not fireable, may be more inclined to seek help.
A Paradigmatic Shift: How Employers Approach Employee Wellbeing Before and After the Pandemic
As an employer who has had to deploy a hundred password-protected, software-optimized laptops can attest, the shift to remote work has pros and cons.
- Pros include a decrease in commute time, reduced overhead and—sometimes—increased productivity.
- Cons include a fragmentation of workplace culture, the challenges of access and cybersecurity, and diminished social interaction.
In cases where employees may be predisposed to mental health issues, the cons are particularly noticeable.
While employer-supplied resources for employee health are not entirely new, there has been a notable increase in these efforts since the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2020, more than 400 employers were surveyed, 85% of whom responded that they were either somewhat or very concerned about their employees’ mental health. Only 7% reported feeling not concerned at all. 67% anticipate that employees will use mental health or wellness benefits.
A Business Group on Health survey reports that employers are actively including the additional cost of mental health services in employee health benefits projections.
This data underscores that employers are taking their employees’ wellbeing seriously, and many are activating comprehensive strategies to get employees the help they need. Often, the resources to meet these needs are being provided for by telehealth and new applications, with some additional industries leveraging out-of-the-box solutions to alleviate the strain.
Employers are approaching their employees’ wellbeing more strategically post-pandemic. Many employers have introduced new workplace health initiatives such as Telehealth.
Industries Involved in Mental, Behavioral, and Workplace Health Initiatives
The stats don’t lie: depression and anxiety are commonplace among working American adults. While effective medication is a viable option, many people are pursuing multiple treatment methods. Leaders in telehealth, app development and mental health are delivering innovation solutions that make it easier than ever for people to find relief.
- Telehealth: Telepsychiatry and Virtual Therapy—This past year saw the rapid development of existing and new platforms for online counseling. BetterHelp, TalkSpace, Healthline and Thriveworks are just a few examples of platforms that specifically provide remote access to licensed or qualified mental health care providers.
- Consumer Software and Applications—Consumer software and applications industries have developed mental wellness and mental health management programs. Moodfit, Happify and Headspace are just a few examples of apps that offer online journaling, daily goals, mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy treatments to bring clarity and peace of mind. Mental health apps have become so well-known and liked they are being adopted by employers. For example, an HR department in Highland, CA leveraged resources from its employee assistance program to offer a mental health app for free to employees who wanted it.
- Mental Health Startups—startups are launching that provide everything from AI for early detection of mental health conditions (Clarigent Health) to periodical screening for employers to evaluate the overall mental health of their staff (Moodpath).
Whatever the right solution is for an individual company and team, there is no denying that poor mental health dramatically impacts employees’ wellbeing, work, and productivity.
How Poor Mental Health Impacts Employee Wellbeing, Work, and Output
Mental health issues in the workplace are not just challenging for the individual, they have a ripple effect that impacts everyone and everything.
Some of the short-term and pervasive effects of poor employee wellbeing includes:
- Decreased productivity and, as a result, company profitability.
- Poor communication and collaboration.
- Lower engagement.
There are also long-term effects of poor mental health among employees, including:
- Damage to company culture.
- Higher rates of substance abuse and addiction.
- Increased turnover as employees quit or their work performance suffers to the degree that they must be let go.
The onus is on leaders to be conscious of the data and create an action plan for supporting employees’ holistic wellness.
Supporting work from home employees requires proactively communicating expectations and providing regular feedback and performance reviews.
Tips on How You Can Support Employee Mental Wellbeing
Business leaders have faced unique challenges as the transition has been made to remote work. While many companies have a hybrid approach or are beginning to allow some choice about whether to work from home or in office, the realities of new cultural dynamics are unlikely to dissipate entirely. As such, it’s important that bosses and leadership teams have a clear and coherent plan for staying intentionally connected, observing employees and providing wellness support as needed.
Supporting Work From Home Employees
Chronic workplace stress has disproportionately impacted employees who only work from home. A Gallup poll indicates that 29% of employees who work from home all of the time feel burnt out “very often” or “always,” compared to only 18% before the pandemic. Here are some tips for supporting the wellbeing of work from home employees:
- Proactively communicate expectations, guidelines, timelines and more. Uncertainty and feeling “out of the loop” can enhance stress and anxiety.
- Continue standard practices and feedback, including regularly scheduled performance reviews.
- Provide a flexible routine that mirrors that of in-person employees.
- Schedule more video calls and stand-ups, if needed, to connect face to face with employees who are still working from home.
- Encourage healthy digital habits through verbal reminders or even password protecting systems and databases after working hours.
- Provide resources that include information about mental health, such as identifying symptoms and where to find in-network therapy or counseling.
Partial Work From Home or Hybrid Employees
Many companies are offering employees the option to work in-office sometimes, or begin the transition back to in-person work. This can be the best of both worlds, but it can also introduce stress if expectations are unclear or employees have to rapidly adjust to getting back out into the world after lockdowns. Make it easier with these tips to support partial work from home employees:
- Establish clear standards and protocol for all of the logistics, including where, how and when employees can show up at the office or can work from home.
- Make resources available: when employees are at work, be sure they have the technology and access they need; same goes for when they are at home.
- Create meaningful connections, whether in-person or over a video call, on a regular basis. Spend regularly scheduled time face-to-face with employees, or have their direct supervisor implement this practice.
- Craft a timeline for where the transition will lead so employees know how to plan for the future.
- Make resources available both digital and in-person, and be sure employees are well-informed about what their insurance covers for mental health and how to file claims.
In Office Employees
Having direct access each day to in office employees is an advantage employers have never appreciated more. The first point of consideration, in supporting in-person employees’ workplace wellbeing is in the office environment. Some of these workers may have transitioned back to the office from home. Whatever the situation, it’s important to have a space that respects some common anxieties, including one that honors social distancing preferences.
Things like air purifiers to reduce the spread of viruses may be an important way to address concerns about sickness in the workplace and promote a healthy culture.
Additional ways to support in-office employees wellbeing include:
- Regularly surveying employees and including questions about mental health and stress management.
- Reduce stressors that include task-based pressure, demanding management tactics and other habits that undermine a healthy work life balance.
- Add in some fun and humor, giving people the chance to socialize and blow off steam together.
- Provide visible, public support for mental health, bringing attention to its prevalence and destigmatizing it in your messaging and offered solutions.
It can be useful to see how support for employees’ mental health is being accomplished by exemplary organizations.
How Corporations are Supporting Employee Wellbeing in the Workplace
Many corporations are stepping up to the plate to build a culture of health for employees. Here are some remarkable ones:
- Starbucks is giving employees access to 20 free sessions with a coach or mental health therapist.
- Clearvision offers a weekly employee-led group called Hearts and Minds, which provides mental health first aid and support.
- Unilever provides all of its 62,000 global employees with access to a 14-day mental wellbeing resilience program.
- Target gives employees a year of free access to two apps, Daylight and Sleepio, both of which support mental wellness and healthy habits. Their Employee assistance program (EAP) also provides five free counseling sessions for employees.
It isn’t only the major players that are stepping up to create better awareness around these issues. Employee wellness programs in small businesses are also catching on. In fact, one small company in Wisconsin launched a program that yielded a 90% participation rate and saw results like healthier vital stats and decreased obesity. The takeaway is that any business of any size can provide this support to employees, and the more visible companies are leading the way.
Case Study—Salesforce and Resources for Wellbeing
Salesforce is a leader in contact management and project management. Even before COVID-19, the company had a robust EAP that included free video or in-person counseling sessions. It is enhancing these offerings since the pandemic by providing access to numerous resources, including Thriving Mind (articles and webinars), B-Well Together (a live webinar series) and Plum Village’s Zen Meditation App.
Case Study—Microsoft and Paid Parental Leave
A key area of stress and concern for working parents was the issue of daycare and school closures during the pandemic. Leaders at Microsoft sought to alleviate this by extending an initiative known as the Paid Pandemic School and Childcare Closure Leave benefit. This offered a 12-week paid parental leave for parents who were facing school closures. The benefit didn’t have to be continuous but was available for parents to take intermittently, maximizing its benefit during uncertain times.
How CEOs Can Support Employee Wellbeing in a Mental Health Crisis
Executives who run companies make important decisions, including how they will support employees’ wellbeing during or when at risk of a mental health crisis. Social isolation, emotional exhaustion and immense stress plague employees. Here is some very basic, actionable advice for CEOs and executives who want to provide better support for employees:
- Ask people if they’re okay (or not).
- Practice supportive listening and reciprocation.
- Be consistently committed to mental health support.
- Do regular pulse checks on employee morale.
- Make more resources available.
Opening channels, normalizing mental health challenges and modeling best practices are vital for success.
Encouraging employees to have a wellness plan will support the employees mental health, wellbeing, and work output.
Encouraging Employees to Have Their Own Wellness Plan
Employers should be highly-motivated to support the mental health and wellbeing of their employees. In addition to the provisions employers can make, it is useful for employees to enact their own plan for mental wellness. Here are some points that can be made to promote this practice in the workplace:
- Log regular fitness activities.
- Invest in nutrition.
- Practice breathing and meditation.
- Adhere to a work-life balance.
- Spend time outdoors.
- Be social.
- Self-monitor moods and thoughts.
- Commit to regular sleep.
- Practice positivity.
- Build the immune system.
Of course, these are goals to alleviate occasional symptoms or episodic moods. For some employees, there will be no lifestyle substitute for professional therapy and medication. It is important that employers are careful when suggesting the value of these practices. Double-check any recommendations or messaging with HR and medical professionals to ensure appropriate protocol is being followed. Activities, workshops, free resources and health benefits are all important ways that employers can help employees meet their physical and mental wellbeing goals.