The pandemic has caused mental health issues to skyrocket — and employers should anticipate these will continue to grow as winter takes hold. The combination of emerging seasonal affective disorder (SAD), coupled with the holiday season, colder weather, and localized COVID-19 surges are all wearing employees down.
Just a few months ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlighted the dramatic increase in the number of Americans living with symptoms of depression, anxiety, substance use, and even suicidal ideation amid the pandemic. SAD, combined with public health restrictions on personal activity outside the home, could further deteriorate the already frayed mental health of US employees. The need is urgent, and the time to act is now.
To best support employees dealing with mounting mental health challenges — including SAD — this year, HR and benefits leaders must look to proven best practices and technology to help drive measurable improvements in the well-being of their teams.
Identify workers dealing with mental health issues
HR and benefits leaders should educate their people managers on how to identify team members who may be currently struggling with SAD or another mental health issue and need intervention. Common signs include:
- Sustained or dramatic changes in mood or behavior;
- Trouble concentrating or processing information;
- Appearing distracted or withdrawn during meetings;
- Not responding to emails;
- Disheveled appearance; and/or
- Missed deadlines or other declines in work performance.
For organizations with remote workforces and those that are practicing diligent social distancing measures, mainstream technology can help people leaders identify these signs sooner rather than later. Use of video via meeting platforms like Zoom and Cisco WebEx for the majority of team and one-on-one meetings provides greater visibility into employee functioning.
Also, as many employers head into the performance review season, HR and benefits leaders can coach managers on adding questions to the self-review process that gauge how psychologically safe they feel on the team, and the extent to which they feel able to prioritize their wellness and self-care. HR and benefits leaders may also turn to broader employee survey tools to get a better pulse on the overall state of well-being for their employees as they plan for benefits and programming in 2021 and beyond. Benefits providers may also be able to provide anonymized insights into the workforce. Regardless of the method or the tools being employed, HR and benefits leaders should work to apply multiple feedback mechanisms to better identify and support employees in need.
Create connections for teams and employees
In addition to identifying employees who may be distressed at work, HR and benefits teams also need to coach managers on ways to create connections with teams and employees during the pandemic.
For remote workforces especially, it is vital for managers and other people leaders to be more proactive than usual about regular and personalized check-ins with employees that may have naturally occurred around the water cooler, so to speak. Managers can do this by taking the first few minutes of a team or one-on-one meeting to ask employees how they’re doing, how supported they’re feeling at work, and what they’re doing to promote self-care to help create a new cultural norm around talking about mental health and wellness at work.
Managers and leaders can also foster a mental health–friendly team environment by sharing how they’re maintaining their own self-care routines, demonstrating and reinforcing the importance of prioritizing wellness, and utilizing available mental health benefits when needed.
Encouraging breaks and incentivizing exercise can also help give people more space to create personal and professional connections that lead to improved mental health. Companies have been creative with virtual team events that promote bonding, cohesion, and a sense of community. Socially distanced gatherings and shared activities like games or cooking and crafts can be a boost for employees — as long as they’re scheduled during the workday instead of extending the workday to fit them in as an obligatory burden.
Offer the services optimized for workplace mental health
Technology platforms aimed at addressing the challenges associated with accessing high-quality, measurable mental health care have come a long way over the last five years. Today, mental health care benefits platforms have made providing employees with access to high-quality mental health care infinitely easier. That said, given the wide array of mental health platforms available, it can still be difficult for HR and benefits leaders to identify the right-fit platform for their particular organization and platform.
As HR and benefits managers consider technologies aimed at optimizing workplace mental health, they would be well-served to focus on the following three criteria:
- Personalized delivery: User-friendly digital platforms can now take the hassle and guesswork out of finding the right mental health treatment for each employees’ specific needs, connecting them with available providers with expertise to treat their mental health concerns, and including diverse options for race/ethnicity and LGBTQ sensitivity. Moreover, proprietary matching technology can connect employees — plus spouses and children — to best-in-class therapists, mental health coaches, and personalized medication prescribing in days versus weeks or months.
- Evidence-based treatments: Evidence-based therapies — like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT),a specific type of talk therapy — are an effective form of psychological treatment that involves actively challenging and correcting unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaving. These therapies work well to augment medications and coaching as part of a comprehensive offering of care services. Research shows that starting or continuing CBT with a mental health professional can greatly benefit employee mood throughout seasonal and/or significant life changes, like the pandemic.
- Robust measurement capabilities: Proactively getting a pulse on factors related to workplace mental health — including psychological safety, ability to engage in self-care behaviors, job engagement, and work-related stress — of your workforce can allow HR and benefits leaders to better course correct in real time throughout the year in order to ensure employees have access to the support and benefits that will allow them to thrive. Adopting technology and a partner that prioritizes the ability to measure the impact of your mental health care benefits — from utilization to cost savings and even employee retention — is mission-critical in being able to communicate the return on investment to senior leadership.
With more Americans facing depression symptoms in 2020 amid the pandemic, economic crisis, social unrest, and the winter season, it is crucial for HR and benefits leaders to provide much-needed mental health support for workers in the year ahead. In 2021, HR and benefits leaders have a chance to establish a resolution to embrace technology as an enabler to a healthier, connected, and more mentally sound workforce.