What to Know About Mental Health Resources at Work, and How to Take Advantage of Them

Help is available—but it should be easier to find.

When the pandemic began to unfold in early 2020, health concerns were mostly physical: what were the symptoms of the virus, the risk factors, and the prognosis? But as the months of work from home stretched on and employees struggled with new stressors in an ever-changing remote workplace, their mental health was also at stake. Now, nearly two years after COVID first entered the workplace vocabulary, employees and employers are coming to terms with the apparent need for better mental health resources and a workplace culture that makes raising those needs less taboo.

Stress from the pandemic manifested in several ways, but employers might have taken notice when employee productivity took a hit. It also became apparent that many employees were unaware of what their companies could provide in terms of mental health support. Pandemic or not, communicating those benefits and connecting employees to them is something that, going forward, employers agree needs to improve.

"If there is a silver lining to the pandemic, it is that we're having more conversations about mental health and wellness and that we're having those in the workplace, which I think is really beneficial," says Rachel O'Neill, PhD, LPCC-S, a licensed professional clinical counselor with Talkspace.

Mental health problems during the pandemic and how they were exacerbated

A 2021 study released by Talkspace showed that at least 25 percent of employees felt they were underperforming at work due to stress. In the same study, 34 percent said they were having a hard time sleeping, and 27 percent said they were feeling short-tempered.

The same study showed that half of all employees surveyed felt work had become too stressful and that high employee turnover amid the pandemic as well as a constant state of change had caused stress.

"Employees also encountered changes in communication at work with more people relying on technology to do their work and interact with coworkers," says Christina Neider, the Dean of College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at University of Phoenix. "They also struggle with the balance of working at home and managing their household, and keeping boundaries in place. Individuals had a harder time saying 'no' or 'not now' which pushed the work boundaries into their personal lives, which was also being stretched."

The University of Phoenix conducted studies in 2020, with its mental health partner Ginger, showing many employees were stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, and feeling a lack of motivation, as well as feelings of depression. While there was no pre-pandemic data to compare the results to, anecdotal evidence pointed to remote work compounding these existing feelings.

"We, as humans, are social beings and need the help, support, and feeling of belonging provided through daily face-to-face interactions," said Ben Voss, VP of Total Rewards & HR Shared Services at University of Phoenix. "It's entirely possible and likely that many of these mental health issues worsened as a result of the pandemic and social isolation."

On top of adjusting to new workflows and remote work, employees were dealing with the traumatic nature of the pandemic itself as they worked to stay healthy, protect their loved ones, and take in worrying news of events unfolding all over the globe.

"There has been such a degree of uncertainty that has happened over the past almost two years, and for many individuals, that uncertainty is what has driven the fear, and to some extent, a traumatic response," O'Neill says. "One of the contributors to trauma is often uncertainty and feeling like you can't have a sense of control over what's happening. Every time there's been a change or a reemergence of the virus, we've absolutely seen workers again struggling to adapt to those changes taking place around that."

How employers can spot these mental health concerns

In pre-pandemic times, managers who are keeping in contact with their employees on a daily basis might easily spot signs of burnout, stress, or anxiety among staff. But remote work changed the game when it came to this early detection.

"While remote working has many employee-friendly benefits, it also makes it more difficult for managers to connect with employees on an emotional level and create a sense of belonging," Voss says.

When widespread employee dissatisfaction became apparent early on, many companies turned to platforms such as Zoom for remote bonding exercises, virtual happy hours, and one-on-one meetings with employees to check in on their state of mind.

"The most successful employers in this labor market are creating a culture—and a permission structure—that allows employees to take advantage of these mental health benefits and prioritize their emotional well-being," O'Neill says. "Managers are one of the most popular groups employees turn to for support. They can build resource awareness and encourage usage around mental health programs. Employers who equip their managers with resources to support mental health are often well positioned to respond to employee needs in this area."

So while it might be up to HR to explain your employee benefits or connect you to an insurance provider who can answer questions about what your plan covers, managers are really the frontline of the employee mental health crisis. They can help to make the work environment less stressful and more understanding of your workloads, but they can spot employees who might need help if they're having problems unrelated to work.

O'Neill says any behavior that diverges from the typical for an employee could be a sign of burnout.

"What we tend to see first and foremost is generally feelings of frustration or stress, or some sort of irritability. Those tend to be the most noticeable signs of burnout, at least initially," O'Neill says. Spotting these signs can be difficult with remote work, but they're still observable, she adds.

"Even if you're not face to face with someone, you can [notice those signs] in a tone of something that they've said," she says. "And I think [that offers] a really good invitation for a supervisor or manager to reach out to that individual and be really proactive."

Why might that be important? Aside from looking out for employees' well-being, there's also the benefit of worker productivity. A recent Talkspace Employee Stress Check report found that the benefit of therapy on individual work performance exceeds expectations by as much as 41 percent, O'Neill says.

What is available to employees and how can they take advantage?

Studies show employees experienced more instances of burnout early on in the pandemic. About 80 percent of HR professionals reported increased staff burnout during the pandemic, with 38 percent of respondents saying their organizations have not taken any steps to address the burnout issue, according to a study by MindEdge and HRCI.

O'Neill says mental health training for employees is the first line of defense for mental health-related problems among staff, whether or not there's a pandemic.

When it comes to mental health benefits available to employees, O'Neill says many employers offer employer-sponsored benefits that can assist with getting care for mental health-related needs, which can include Health Savings Accounts.

Also, be sure to look into your employer's Employee Assistance Program. Even if you work at a small company, Deanna Baumgardner, president at Employers Advantage LLC, says small companies offer EAPs to assist employees who don't receive full benefits. Ask HR about your specific insurance plans and what it covers. You can also get in touch with an insurance rep at your provider who can explain those offerings in detail.

"We have an employee assistance program we offer to our clients and we saw an uptick in the number of clients signing up for that," Baumgardner said. "It gives their employees up to eight free mental health sessions."

The programs typically also offer resources such as nutrition coaching, legal counsel, and health advocates. But the primary benefit amid the pandemic was the need for mental health counseling, Baumgardner said.

If you're still struggling to get sufficient coverage, ask about disability benefits, seek out social services, or visit a local nonprofit or university for more resources.

"There are definitely local nonprofits that have a variety of mental health support services," Baumgardner says. "Disability coverage might also be an option if you're able to qualify for it based on the individual's diagnosis, ability/inability to work because of the mental illness." The same goes for social services, she says.

How employers stepped up to the plate

As the pandemic illuminated these shortcomings in mental health services for employees, many employers took steps to bridge the gap.

In April of this year, Yahoo launched the Mind Together mental health coalition and joined forces with Kellogg's, Snap, and Spotify to eliminate stigma around mental health for its employees. Lisa Moore, Head of Global Business Partnering, Talent and People Operations at Yahoo said the coalition is working to create a playbook of resources and best practices other employers can use to support their employees.

"By addressing mental health in the workplace and investing in the wellbeing of employees, employers, companies, and brands can increase productivity and employee retention," Moore said.

Moore suggested a handful of strategies for supporting workers, starting with the creation of Employee Resource Groups internally, made up of staffers who can connect with employees through shared experiences. If you don't feel you have adequate expertise in mental health topics, partner with experts and invite a group to come speak to your company. And be sure to follow up with regular conversations that allow employees to open up and share.

O'Neill said Talkspace offered additional paid days off to its employees amid the pandemic, for them to use for self-care and decompression.

"And then certainly there are other types of support that can be helpful as well that indirectly impact mental health," O'Neill adds. "So things like programs that are available to assist with childcare or flexible work arrangements, hybrid work arrangements."

Clark Lagemann, CEO at Avidon Health, said his company held virtual game show nights and photo contests for employees, in addition to monthly all-hands meetings with break-out sessions on topics unrelated to work.

"Ultimately, it's all about fostering communication and making sure it isn't all business all the time," he says. "We all miss those interactions from the old office and helping folks stay plugged in is a big part of preventing burnout and mental fatigue."

A benefit in increasing worker productivity with these tools, O'Neill says, is that employers often notice less use of sick time employees might have been taking for some relief.

How employees can advocate for themselves

While many workplaces have tons of resources in place to assist with these situations, large and small, not all employers are as proactive about making those resources available. So while in the grand scheme, it's an employer's responsibility to handle these efforts, you might find yourself in a situation where you need to advocate for yourself in the short term.

Experts suggest reaching out to your HR director to start.

"Employees can often consult their benefits hub for additional information, or reach out to a human resources representative to learn more about the services available to them," O'Neill says.

But advocating for yourself can be difficult when mental health is still a taboo subject. If you don't feel comfortable speaking up about what you think should be offered, try joining forces with fellow employees to ask management for more support as a group.

"Stigma is one of the biggest barriers to addressing mental health at work," Moore says.

In many ways, the pandemic not only shone a spotlight on the need for mental health services but also forced many employers to get smart about these issues and step up their offerings.

"The pandemic has certainly brought the importance of addressing mental health in the workplace to the attention of many employers across the world," O'Neill adds. "It is important for employers to continue to explore ways in which to support the mental and emotional well-being of their employees."

Finding help outside of work

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered tips to employees amid the pandemic for building resilience during one of the most stressful times the world has faced, covering everything from establishing a consistent sleep schedule to communicating with supervisors about how to solve workplace problems to reduce stress. If you're currently in crisis, don't wait for help to find you. The Disaster Distress Helpline is a 24/7 phone line for those in emotional distress during natural and manmade disasters, including the pandemic.

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