By Garen Staglin
Across the U.S. and world, employers are doing their best to follow public health data on Covid-19 to try to make the best decisions on how to protect their employees and those they serve. But this data is only part of the story. To safely reopen, stay open, or remain at home, and ultimately recover to whatever the “new” normal will be, organizations also need to monitor and make decisions based on mental health needs.
The most effective mental health metrics will be continuous, providing real-time insights on how the workforce is faring in the midst of Covid-19, protests for racial justice, and other disruptive events. Early research from the World Health Organization, Kaiser Family Foundation, and others have already demonstrated the pandemic’s immense toll on mental health. Now, employers can play a critical role in continuing to assess mental health and ensure employees have access to needed resources.
A new workplace mental health project, the Mental Health Index: U.S. Worker Edition, co-sponsored by the National Alliance, HR Policy Alliance and One Mind and produced by Total Brain, helps to meet this need. Every month, the Index presents updated findings from a random sampling of hundreds of U.S. workers, across topics like risk for anxiety and depressive disorders, emotional awareness, and negativity. The result is an ongoing, detailed look into how mental health impacts are evolving and where needs are the greatest. For example, data released on July 17 showed that U.S. employees’ risk of Depressive Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress and General Anxiety Disorder each increased by at least 40% since February. Interestingly, the reopening of some businesses in June seems to have brought some relief, particularly for women who were the most affected segment in the study. However, the worsening rate of infection and cases across the country means that the numbers are likely to get much worse before the get better.
Even if numbers from June are encouraging, mental illness is an important concern for long-term economic recovery. Even before the pandemic, depression, alone, cost tens of billions of dollars in lost productivity in the U.S. each year. Without a concerted response from employers, the costs of mental illness threaten to spike to an unsustainable level in the wake of Covid-19.
Organizations can take three critical steps to protect workers not just from risk of infection, but also mental illness:
Provide tools for employees to assess mental health
There are a wealth of employee mental health assessment tools and applications available; employers just need to decide which is best for their workers and which mental health metrics will help guide decisions. The most effective tools will be easy to use and understand, protect workers’ privacy, and provide actionable findings and resources. However, simply providing or using a tool is not enough. Organizations should also engage their leaders and managers to actively discuss the importance of mental health, share their own experiences, and encourage workers to take advantage of resources. Stigma and fear of discrimination don’t go away easily. It takes a concerted, long-term effort.
Ensure access to mental health resources
Once workers have assessed their mental health needs, they need access to resources, services, and providers to meet those needs. Leading employers are stepping up to bolster these offerings in this area given the challenges of Covid-19. For example, EY provides employees with free access to apps for building emotional resilience, one-on-one or group counseling, and daily drop-in sessions where employees can learn tips for managing anxiety, stress and social isolation. Similarly, PwC is providing access to well-being coaches throughout the pandemic to discuss stressors, while the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs released a comprehensive toolkit to help leaders support their staff during a national emergency.
Continually improve response with evolving resources and discussions
2020 has shown that stress, life disruptions, and mental strains can change suddenly—and the future remains uncertain. While employers cannot predict the course of Covid-19 or other challenges – which could include national disasters, pandemics, or social movements – they can establish the infrastructure, tools, and conversations to respond effectively to any new mental health impacts, whatever comes next.
Workforce mental health metrics are essential to charting a path forward during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond. Just as employers are central to mitigating the spread of the virus, they can take an active role to understand and respond to evolving mental health impacts. This will protect workers’ lives and health, speed economic recovery, and lay the foundation for mental health in the workplace on a permanent basis.
FB: April Green