As the COVID-19 pandemic stubbornly drags on, many employers — whether they’re bringing workers back to the office yet or not — are looking for ways to support their employees’ mental health and address the elevated levels of stress and anxiety resulting from the pandemic and its collateral damage.
Even those not dealing with illness or the loss of loved ones have often faced financial pressures, isolation, and the impossible task of juggling caregiving and professional responsibilities. Remote work, while bringing a welcome increase in flexibility, has also allowed our jobs to intrude even further on our personal lives, leading to rising stress, languishing and burnout.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the share of U.S. adults reporting symptoms of anxiety disorder and/or depressive disorder rose from 11% in the first half of 2019 to more than 40% in January 2021.
Employers living through this Great Resign period recognize the growing issue, and many are looking for support systems — beyond employee assistance programs and mental health care coverage designed to address more severe situations — that can preemptively help their workers before serious problems emerge. In most cases, fortunately, it’s not necessary to reinvent the wheel. With a few tweaks, a robust corporate well-being program can enable employees to improve their physical and mental health.
Following are three tips for incorporating a greater mental health focus into your employee well-being program.
1. Solicit employee input
Regular anonymous pulse surveys can give you a big-picture view of your organization’s overall mental health climate and help you identify any workplace culture issues that may be affecting employee morale and mental health. (It goes without saying that appropriate reporting structures are required for any type of harassment, discrimination, or other toxic behavior, but you’ll also want to know about potential lower-level stressors that don’t rise to the seriousness of requiring a formal complaint.)
In addition to executing periodic surveys, you should seek out input from individuals to make sure their specific concerns are being addressed. One way to do this is to incorporate well-being into the standard employee review process. Broadening the discussion beyond individual job performance to include questions about whether the employee feels valued and heard, and whether the organization’s well-being benefits are meeting their needs, can both demonstrate that the company cares about its people and help improve future benefit offerings.
2. Address lifestyle health issues that diminish well-being
Mental and physical health are inextricably linked, and sustainable improvements can’t be achieved with a siloed approach. For example, stress and anxiety can lead to lost sleep, emotional eating, substance use, and other unhealthy behaviors that ultimately lead to physical ailments, and conversely, addressing the unhealthy lifestyle choices that lead to chronic conditions such as obesity, hypertension, and diabetes can have a considerable impact on mental health and well-being.
So to fully support mental health, a well-being program must help employees develop long-term positive lifestyle habits that will lead to significant improvements in physical health.
A good mental health measurement component to use in your well-being program is the National Institutes of Health’s PROMIS (Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System). Newtopia, for example, uses PROMIS measures for resilience, mood, anxiety, sleep, and energy in its personalized habit change programs alongside the tracking of more traditional factors such as exercise and nutrition.
3. Take advantage of virtual tools
Most of us have grown accustomed to turning to our smartphones for solutions, so it’s not surprising that many people are embracing apps — for meditation, mindfulness and relaxation, for example — to improve their mental health as well. When a human connection (or a trained mental health professional) is needed, many companies are offering their employees virtual therapy and counseling sessions, either from emerging digital-only providers or from traditional providers who have embraced telehealth during the pandemic.
These types of virtual tools are convenient and accessible, but it’s important to remember that they are most effective when they’re incorporated into a holistic whole-person care support program that comprehensively addresses physical, emotional, and mental well-being, rather than simply offering employees a grab bag of individual solutions that they can pick and choose from.
The mental and emotional scars of the pandemic will likely get worse before they get better, and last long after employees return to the office. Incorporating mental health into your company’s well-being program can help your employees thrive and achieve their potential. It’s a win-win investment that leads not only to enhanced individual health and happiness but to greater organizational effectiveness thanks to reduced burnout, higher productivity, and improved retention.