Even employees who have stayed physically healthy during the novel coronavirus pandemic may still be struggling with the fear and uncertainty brought on by the global health crisis. It can take a toll on workers' mental health, experts say, and although those effects may be more difficult to see, some companies are stepping up to recognize and address them.
The pandemic's mental health toll
When the nation shut down to reduce the coronavirus spread, life as most people knew it changed dramatically. Some employees continued their regular jobs as front-line or essential workers, knowing they had a higher chance of exposure to the virus. Others made the abrupt transition to working remotely. Still more were laid off or furloughed.
And as work situations shifted, personal responsibilities changed, too. Some workers' caretaking duties skyrocketed as day cares, schools and other institutions closed. Isolated from co-workers, friends and family, employees faced fear and uncertainty about their finances, their health and the health of loved ones.
It's not surprising, then, that the stress is adding up. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) examined the relationship between COVID-19 and mental health in a recent study. It found that two-thirds of employees said they feel depressive symptoms sometimes, with 22-35% reporting they face these symptoms often.
For workers who entered the pandemic with pre-existing depression or anxiety, their mental health situation likely deteriorated, Renee Schneider, vice president of clinical quality at mental health benefits provider Lyra Health, told HR Dive in an interview. When Lyra asked providers how clients were faring, nearly 60% said their clients were experiencing a worsening of symptoms, with higher levels of depression and anxiety than a few months ago, she said.
While this increase is concerning, it's not unexpected given the ramifications of the crisis, she said. What surprised her was the 33% increase in clients who reported having either suicidal thoughts or self-harm, she said.
An under-the-radar need
Even before the pandemic, employers were increasingly focused on workforce wellness. A 2019 study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion found that nearly half (46.1%) of U.S. worksites with ten or more employees offered some wellness benefits. But a pandemic may pull employers' attention away, said Amber Clayton, director of SHRM's Knowledge Center. "They're focused on reopening businesses, recalling staff and making sure the facilities are safe for workers, vendors, and customers," she said.
And, as businesses reopen, a return to in-office work could trigger more mental health-related issues, said Clayton. "It may pop up when people don't come to work or don't come back to work because of fear. It's going to be a long road because there's a lot that they're dealing with right now," she said.
How to address mental health now
Some employers have upped the mental health support they provide to help employees with the effects of COVID-19 now. For example:
- Target provided team members with free online access to apps designed to reduce worry and increase sleep.
- Postmates offered workers a resource portal with 24/7 access to mental and physical telehealth services.
- Starbucks partnered with Lyra to provide employees with free therapy sessions.
Companies can reach out to their employee assistance programs and review their health insurance to see if they can add more options for support, Clayton said. They can also look at what state and local programs offer, she said.
In the meantime, leaders will want to look out for employees who exhibit signs of worsening mental health conditions. That can be difficult to do, especially when employees work remotely, and a change in behavior may not be as apparent as when the employee is in the office. But if an employee who previously functioned at a high level is no longer doing so — missing meetings or deadlines, is unprepared, is withdrawing from online social interaction, or is often emotionally upset — they may need extra support, Schneider said.
"I hope employers have been communicating all along in terms of mental health and looking at [seeking help] as an act of courage," Schneider said. As workers return to the office, employers and employees may expect life to return to normal. However, additional stressors of child care, job security, safety and financial concerns may increase, she said; "We have the opportunity now to really hone the message to let people know that mental health help is available."