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Employee Mental Health Support in the Time of Coronavirus

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Stress, anxiety, uncertainty—not only is coronavirus a health crisis and an economic crisis, it is a mental health crisis.

A recent survey found that 70% of working people are experiencing the worst stress of their professional careers. Worse than 9/11, worse than the Great Recession. (Source).

The only real comfort here is that being stressed out during a pandemic is a completely normal physiological response. Front line essential workers, work-from-home warriors, and the growing ranks of unemployed people (your future re-hires), are all feeling the pressure.

As an employer, supporting the mental health of your employees builds resilience within teams and in our community. It can help maintain productivity, increase morale, and support retention. Most importantly, it’s a way to help your work family through a trying time.

Stress, burnout, fatigue, depression, and more

During an infectious disease outbreak, stress alone can cause:

  • Fear and worry about your own health and the health of your loved ones
  • Changes in sleep or eating patterns
  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
  • Worsening of chronic health problems
  • Worsening of mental health conditions
  • Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs

(Source: CDC)

In addition, other conditions related to COVID-19 like burnout, fatigue, and depression, are taking a toll on American workers. For healthcare workers, Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS), also known as compassion fatigue, is another risk of the job.

Even for those not fighting COVID-19 on the front lines, the reality is that many of your employees are in less than ideal situations. Everyone under stay-at-home orders with young children knows the struggle. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Domestic violence and addiction-related issues are exacerbated by the stress and restrictions brought on by coronavirus. Some are bracing for an uptick in suicides related to coronavirus. Other people are desperately trying to work through pre-existing mental health issues. All while dealing with unprecedented levels of pandemic-level stress.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires covered employers to make reasonable accommodation for employees’ disabilities stemming from emotional or mental illnesses including anxiety, depression, OCD, and PTSD (Source).

The nature of these accommodations is admittedly more difficult to define right now. Safe to say, patience and understanding will go a long way. Options like flexibility in leave (both paid and unpaid) and availability of time during the workday to seek counseling or treatment are some practical ways an employer may be able to accommodate an employee’s situation.

Promote available resources

In Hawaii, Kaiser Permanente offers a variety of mental health resources and ways to get care, including via an online member portal. UHA is offering members therapy services with no copays or deductibles. And HMSA Online Care is a robust portal where members can look for therapists who are available.

Remind employees of the mental health services they have available through their health insurance provider. Similarly, if your company offers an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), draw attention to it by highlighting the available resources (Source). EAPs provide timely advice on tough topics, as well as referrals to online and local service providers.

Speaking with a doctor online via a Hawaii telehealth service is another option for care.

Finally, social media is the perfect place to share tips and reminders about the importance of self-care. Look for Wellness Wednesday posts that you can easily share, or curate advice from experts.

Make sure everyone is OK

You as an employer can’t fix the stress of a global pandemic. But you can acknowledge it and be empathetic. As leaders in a pandemic world, it is critical to be human, transparent, and honest.

You cannot over-communicate when it comes to telling your employees about what is going on with your company. If you don’t know what the future holds, say that. Offer any assurances you can about the work you are doing to prevent job losses. Your words offer more comfort than you know!

Be sure to check in with your people and make sure they’re connected and safe.

Live aloha, show vulnerability, and be compassionate. Take a few moments to check in at the start of meetings or group chats. Even silly memes, recipe swaps, and exercise challenges have a place in helping people stay positive, connected, and healthy.

Increase mental health benefits, even small ones

In the wake of coronavirus, companies large and small are making a push to boost mental health resources.

Starbucks and Target are offering employees free, online counseling sessions. Other companies take a more modest approach, for example, by giving away access to apps to help manage relaxation or sleep. (Source)

Is there something you can do to help your employees cope with stress and protect their mental health? Simply encouraging people to take care of the basics goes a long way. Sleep, exercise, time with loved ones—these things are more important than ever. Yet for many, they are more difficult than ever.

Lead the way into the future

We will be dealing with the impact of coronavirus long after the curve has been flattened. For employers seeking to retain their teams, investing in employee mental health care now just makes sense. Be well.

Disclaimer: This material is provided for informational purposes only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice, and readers should consult with their advisor or counsel before taking any actions based on the information contained within this material.

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