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Smart CEOs must hear employee cry for mental health benefits

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Even in normal times, employers struggle to manage the evolving mental health needs of employees. Skyrocketing healthcare costs, limited access to high quality mental health provider networks and insufficient support programs make this challenge all the more daunting.

Even before the pandemic, the American worker was living in a world of rising substance abuse rates, an always-on work culture that rewards those who never sleep, a tumultuous political climate and the pervasive worry that comes with wondering when the next recession might hit.

It’s clear why mental health issues were on the rise among American workers prior to COVID-19. Now, amid a worldwide pandemic, stress levels are through the roof, two recent surveys show. Before the pandemic, almost 60% of workers shared that stress had brought them to tears at work (a 23% increase over 2019) and 43% of employees said they have become physically ill over work-related stress, according to a survey from on-demand mental health provider Ginger.

Then COVID-19 began to spread and the numbers jumped dramatically.

· 88% of workers have reported experiencing moderate to extreme stress over the past 4-6 weeks.

· Nearly 70% of workers claimed this was the most stressful time of their entire professional career, including major events like the September 11 terror attacks, the 2008 Great Recession and other events.

And while this pandemic will not last forever, there are certain to be lasting impacts, especially when it comes to mental health. And both employers and employees agree: companies aren’t doing enough to get in front of the problem.

Around 63% of workers in the U.S. say their company could do more to support their emotional and mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Within this group, 22% said their company’s response was “barely adequate,” “a disaster” or “non-existent.” Companies that are still thriving after the pandemic will be those that support workers’ mental health, 93% of employees said.

In a separate survey of human resources leaders — all of them members of the Employer Health Innovation Roundtable (EHIR) — 60% said they are not satisfied with their own company’s focus on employee emotional and mental health during this crisis, with their top two concerns being general personal anxiety and parents balancing work from home and caregiving.

The path forward
The numbers paint a picture of an anxious nation, one filled with worried employees and employers. But there are steps CEOs can take to brighten this picture, especially as a cautious return to the workplace is coming soon.

1. Maintain open communication
As CEOs grapple with the reopening of office doors, open communication with employees will be paramount, because work may not look quite the way it did in the past. Employers should expect increased sensitivity, confusion and anxiety among employees.

There are mixed feelings about how CEOs should manage testing for previously infected employees as well as avoidance of infection in the workplace, according to the EHIR survey. Self-reporting of symptoms and thermal screening at worksite entry are the two approaches most commonly cited that will be implemented once worksites are reopened with roughly 58% of employers indicating usage.

Much work will be needed in the next couple of months around return-to-work programming, testing logistics, contact tracing, and ensuring employees feel comfortable. Ongoing, two-way communication between company leadership and employees is the key to launching successful programs.

While state and federal authorities are developing return-to-work guidelines, the majority of the respondents in the EHIR survey indicate that they will determine their policies based on the risk assessment or recommendations of their own crisis management team, medical director or other expert opinion rather than relying solely on state or federal officials’ decisions.

This means workers are looking to their CEOs and other company leaders to guide their next steps. Providing steady guidance — informed by communications with employees — is one way to boost the mental and emotional wellbeing of employees.

2. Continue to provide flexible work options
In all likelihood, once social distancing measures are lifted, many people will still approach social activity with caution. They may return to physical worksites gradually, and with caution.

Employers should support flexible work conditions that minimize employees’ stress levels. Workers might not be ready to reintroduce high-exposure activities into their day-to-day routines, at least not right away, so employers must create a work environment that makes them feel comfortable and allows them to perform their best.

3. Invest in the right support
Quite a lot of employers are making cuts to non-essential perks, but they should keep in mind: mental health support is not one of them. Employees need additional support to manage through this crisis.

None of the employers we surveyed said that they are planning to decrease spending on innovative services to support the health and wellbeing of employees, which is very good news.

Even better is the statistic that nearly 92% of the employers we surveyed say they have waived cost share for certain telehealth services, and that employees are using these services in significant numbers. Telehealth is something that has been of interest to many employers for quite some time. Now is the time to lean in.

When the spread of infections begins to abate, HR leaders should continue to champion flexible work policies and invest in ongoing mental health resources for their employees, as the emotional impact of COVID-19 will likely reverberate for years to come. Planning ahead for the post-pandemic reality will help ensure business continuity, while keeping employees grounded and resilient in an ever-changing world.

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