Mental health stigma still a barrier during coronavirus

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The disruptions caused by coronavirus have now dragged on for months, and despite some efforts to reopen and resume pre-pandemic life, a true return to normalcy is still far in the future.

These challenges have continued to place immense strain on mental health. Employees have seen a 64% increase in feelings of depression and a 47% increase in anxiety levels since February, according to a May mental health index developed by Total Brain that is being shared to employers by the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions and One Mind at Work. The index also found that productivity and work performance have suffered since the start of the pandemic.

Dealing with mental health issues in isolation is especially challenging because of the stigma that surrounds speaking openly about it, says Nancy Reardon, chief strategy and product officer at Maestro Health. In a study conducted by the healthcare benefits company, more than half of employees do not feel comfortable talking to their manager about their mental health.

“We have to work together to remove the stigma,” Reardon says. “Stress is natural and at some point in their life, everyone will have an anxiety attack. So let’s be open about that and stop hiding in the shadows.”

Reardon discussed why mental health needs to be addressed in the same way as other preventative care, and how the coronavirus has changed the discussion about employee well-being in the workplace.

Many people are struggling with their mental health as coronavirus continues. What are the top sources of stress that you’re hearing about?

The top causes that we're seeing are anxiety and stress about job security, because of the unemployment rate and because businesses are not able to work at capacity. Then there’s the additional stress of trying to be a worker at home and be productive, but also be a teacher to your children or taking care of extended family members. You’re not only trying to manage doing your job, but you’re also trying to take care of a household.

It’s still very challenging for an employee to say, I'm having a hard time. How can employers create a safe environment for people to express their mental health needs?

It's about confidentiality. Do you really feel like you can openly talk about it, or do you think that confidentiality will come back to haunt you if there's decisions being made about your job? We have to work together to remove the stigma, and take the same care and attention we have for preventative care and apply that to mental health. We talk about all of the preventive care that one needs to take — when you're over 50, you need a colonoscopy, or that women 40 and over should get a mammogram once every 12 months. But we never talk about the care and attention that you need to pay to your mind.

We have to bring it out into the spotlight. Be very transparent in your communication. Take marketing principles and the way you communicate about your benefits to say, It's OK, we all have stress, but there's things that we're providing to you to help you with that stress. If employees see that support enough, we start removing that stigma and it becomes natural.

How should an employer’s health benefits reflect this openness to discuss mental health?

It has to be covered just like any other medical benefit. You can also create lower or zero cost sharing for mental health, to send people to get care because you're willing to pay more out of pocket as an employer to make that access easier for the employee. Employers can also make covering out-of-network providers for mental health at the same level of in-network providers and remove that barrier. Even if you have an EAP program, if people aren't aware of what's out there, they won’t connect to that.

An employer has to communicate and educate what's available. Meet people where they are. Some people may want to talk to someone in person, and some people want to interact over texts and chats and that works for them.

How has an increased awareness of mental health during coronavirus helped employers address these issues?

I think it's always been, keep your problems at home. But people are now realizing that you can't separate the mind from the body. We are whole individuals, and if you're suffering from stress, anxiety, depression or substance abuse, that affects your physical health. It affects your productivity; it affects everything that you do. So if you're not taking care of your employee's mind the way that you expect them to take care of their physical health, then you're missing a great component of creating an environment of overall well-being — and ultimately, spending less overall on your healthcare costs. They're all interrelated.

There’s research that shows that paying attention to this matters — it matters to your overall bottom line on how much you pay for your benefits. I think people are now understanding the connection between mental, financial, and physical health, and that you just can't pay attention to one.

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Mental health Mental health benefits Depression Health and wellness Healthcare costs