As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has cautioned that fear and anxiety about the virus can be overwhelming.
In fact, more than 4 in 10 adults (45%) responding to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation Health poll said worry and stress related to COVID-19 has had a negative impact on their mental health, up from 32% in early March. Mental health wellness must be a priority in the workplace during these challenging times, according to experts, and technology can play a role in increasing employee access to care.
"One in every 5 American adults experience some form of mental illness — over 43 million Americans," William Kassler, chief medical officer of government health and human services at IBM Watson Health, told HR Dive in a phone interview. A work environment can have both positive and negative effects on an employees' mental health, Kassler added.
The traditional workplace has changed for many since late February when the CDC advised businesses to start preparing for the spread of COVID-19, specifically focusing on transitioning to telework. Working at home and the disruption of one's usual routine can be very stressful, said Kassler, a health policy expert and practicing primary care internist and epidemiologist. But research has shown that most employer-sponsored health plans do not offer coverage for mental health that's comparable to their physical health offerings.
It's not too late for companies in a time of crisis to implement mental health strategies, Kassler said. However, they will be in response mode. "In a pandemic response, there are three phases: preparedness, response and recovery," Kassler explained. "Right now if you're asking, what can employers do, well, the time for preparedness is gone. They can only respond."
During this time, following the recommendations of local and national public health authorities regarding mental health is essential, he said. It's also important to look at the specific recommendations that are coming to businesses from the CDC, Kassler said. Companies can point to places where employees can get help and administer policies that don't put pressure on people who are protecting themselves and their families, he added.
HR professionals shouldn't be required to provide therapy to employees, Kassler added. "HR is good at what HR does, but most HR folks don't have a therapeutic background; they're not counselors," he said. "But what HR can do is help companies develop the policies and practices in place, get the resources and broker the interaction between people who deliver therapy."
Social distancing while showing care
At the instruction of the CDC, those in the U.S. are to practice social distancing and maintain physical distance from others. Although social distancing is necessary, it can magnify challenges that already exist in society, Limeade CEO Henry Albrecht told HR Dive in an interview. "A lot of people don't realize that even before this COVID-19 pandemic, there's also been this quiet epidemic of isolation and loneliness in this country," he said.
Limeade, which brands itself as an employee well-being platform, seeks to increase physical distancing between employees but reduce social isolation, Albretcht said. The company provides tools for managers to check in on their teams and has social events like a virtual happy hour. "What we found is that it's been a really positive experience for a lot of people," Albrecht said. "I get to learn things about colleagues that I didn't know."
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, mental well-being was a challenge for employers, according to research. Limeade's 2020 Employee Care Report, which surveyed 1,000 full-time U.S. workers and was released March 6, found that 47% of employees who have disclosed a mental health issue in the workplace have experienced a negative consequence by doing so. And 1 in 3 employees have left a job because they didn't feel their employer cared about them as a person. The company has made available, at no charge, a version of the Limeade Care in Crisis edition software with a "laser focus" on COVID-19, Albrecht said. "Care doesn't just feel good for the employees, it's essential for the business," he said. "If you want to attract and retain a workforce, right now you're sending a message to your employees what your true colors are."
Innovative ways to seek professional help
IBM's Institute for Business Value (IBV) report, How Technology and Data Can Improve Access to Mental Health Resources, described how technology can allow for 24/7 real-time care. "Technology can play a role in providing increased access to care for folks who are not insured, may live in rural areas who may be stigmatized, and not want to go to a designated mental health professional," Kassler said. "By creating virtual visits, remote platforms, and different innovative ways in which people can seek care, that reduces some of their barriers." He said the IBV report found that mental health apps are a very common way to apply technology to address the issues of access and stigma.
"So it's important for HR to curate and go to a source of good apps that assure privacy of content that is vetted by mental health professionals that have user interfaces that are appropriate and secure," he said. Two apps Kasser discussed were Tiatros and Get Results in Transition, or GRIT.
Tiatros, for example, is an online anonymous group session app developed by trained psychiatrists and psychologists that goes through standard behavior cognitive techniques, Kasser said. The app uses artificial intelligence (AI) tools such as natural language analytics to "[provide] to the counselors to the counselors feedback on personality, on stress, on sentiment," he said. Since it's anonymous, HR professionals should also be inclined to participate, Kassler said. "HR folks are employees and bring the same issues to work as all the rest of us do," he said.
As companies navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, they should process the lessons learned in regard to mental health and put "policies and practices in place in advance to prepare for this, like they would a business continuity operation plan to address employee needs," Kassler said.