Within the first two months of the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns over a potential mental health crisis started to emerge. Enforced quarantines and the massive, sudden shift to remote work left many employees feeling anxious, lonely and depressed. In fact, since the outbreak of the pandemic, 75% of people say they feel more socially isolated, while 67% of people report higher stress levels. Over half (57%) are feeling greater anxiety.
In response, some companies have taken actionable steps to support their employees’ mental health. Back in April, Starbucks announced it would offer employees and their family members 20 free counseling sessions a year. Similarly, PwC introduced well-being coaching sessions for all of its employees.
While these types of efforts are necessary in light of the current situation, they do not fully address the underlying issue: The continued stigmatization of mental health conditions in the workplace. A 2019 survey of 1,500 employees found that less than half of respondents believed their company prioritized mental health. Further, a majority of respondents also reported that they were afraid to talk about mental health in the workplace for fear of being judged for it.
The COVID-19 pandemic, and its resulting economic downturn, have negatively affected many people’s mental health and exacerbated people’s existing mental illnesses. This makes it more important than ever for companies to break the stigma around mental health in the workplace and implement long-term, effective solutions for addressing these issues. Companies should focus on getting better at talking about mental health at work, reexamining their employee benefits programs and encouraging employees to use available mental health services.
Talking About Mental Health at Work
One of the biggest shortcomings in employers’ mental health efforts is being ill-equipped—or simply reluctant—to address these issues. Only about 25% of managers in the U.S. have been trained in referring employees to mental health resources. But this is a necessary skill for managers to develop. Many mental illnesses can impede a person’s ability to function properly, let alone perform at work. Depression, for example, can cause an employees’ productivity to drop. This is all-too-common in the workplace—in fact, $17-$44 billion in revenue is lost annually due to depression.
To better address mental health problems at work, employers need to be sure that their employees feel comfortable talking about these issues. And to do that, there has to be trust—especially between managers and their direct reports. Facilitating regular check-ins between employees and managers can help, but in those meetings, encourage managers to practice vulnerability. When managers describe their personal challenges, whether related to mental health or not, it makes them appear more human and relatable—and employees will feel comfortable doing the same.
Invest in Better Services
A shocking number of employees still feel as though there is a lack of mental health coverage at their company, and rightfully so: Only 13% of companies provide on-site stress-management programs and just 11% offer mindfulness or meditation benefits, according to a recent study from SHRM.
However, a majority of companies today do offer employee-assistance programs (EAPs), which typically provide employees with immediate phone access to a counselor, a limited number of free sessions with a mental health care professional and therapist referrals. But the utilization of these programs is low, averaging below 10%. This is due in part to a lack of communication about the availability of these services—and because these programs typically offer the bare minimum in terms of usable mental health benefits and options for support.
EAPs don’t require a lot of effort or money from companies, which is why so many prefer to use them. Most are relatively inexpensive, costing between 75 cents and $1.50 per member per month, regardless of how often staff uses them.
Companies need to invest in EAP programs that offer better, more effective treatments. For example, in addition to an EAP’s existing offerings, employers should consider providing onsite counseling services and online programs that use cognitive behavioral therapy to treat patients. There are also other services, such as Psyched In Residence, that businesses can use to bring qualified, accredited and experienced psychotherapists in the workplace—without people needing to specifically ask for it. These days, practitioners can also deliver their professional and emotional therapeutic services in-person or virtually.
Reiterating Available Benefits Now—And Later
Thankfully, experts predict that a majority of employers that added, or made changes to, their mental health resources in response to COVID-19 will likely keep them long-term. But providing resources is not enough. In order to convince employees that their mental health is important to a company now and into the future, action must come from the top down. If serious about normalizing mental health at work, companies should place CEOs at the center of their mental health initiatives.
Most companies do not have a single owner for all their mental health initiatives—instead, they allow many departments, like HR and learning and development, to play different but simultaneous roles in managing them. But without a proprietary leader for these programs, it’s harder to create accountability.
CEOs can act as the "normalizer-in-chief." They can oversee all of a company’s mental health initiatives, hold different departments accountable to them and lead more conversations about mental health and the role it plays in the workplace. By making it clear at a company-wide meeting that they understand the importance of removing the stigma around these conditions at work, a CEO sends a message to the rest of their organization that they are serious about creating workplace culture that’s understanding and prioritizing of mental illnesses—while focusing on eliminating associated stigmas.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed a lot of underlying workplace issues—addressing and providing resources for mental health chief among them. But to effectively address these issues, thoughtful changes must be made to how often a company talks about mental health and how it invests executive time and money in supporting these initiatives.
For more information on how to support employees’ mental health during this difficult time and into the future, check out this recent article from Cornerstone’s EVP of Learning and Organizational Effectiveness Jeff Miller.
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Content warning: This article discusses themes of mental health, including depression, self-harm and suicide.