The latest challenges brought on by COVID-19 have shown just how much life outside of work can affect employees. Employers and HR leaders have seen the impacts of 2020 on employee mental wellbeing. Fortunately, with new advancements in behavior health technologies, there are more ways than ever to address employee mental health in 2021.

To help HR and business leaders best lead, Spring Health recently hosted a webinar on how to best prioritize employee mental health. Alex Tiligadas, director in Health and Benefits of Willis Towers Watson, joined Greg Berger, Spring Health’s director of enterprise partnerships, to examine how HR leaders can help their employees in this turbulent time.

Following are key takeaways from their discussion:

Understand employee mental health

To improve employee mental health, we first need an understanding of your team members’ current mental state. A helpful way to think about this is to imagine humans all fall somewhere on a mental health spectrum, and this, of course changes at different points in life. The left end of the spectrum is where people are healthy, thriving, fulfilled, and at ease. A move to the middle may be initiated by challenges at work, or more serious events like a loss of a loved one. In the middle, a person might be putting in more effort to cope, struggling, surviving, or experiencing prolonged periods of feeling down. At the far right end are more serious mental illnesses, like PTSD, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and more.

To design an emotional wellbeing strategy that addresses the diverse needs of a unique employee population, HR and business leaders can’t use a one style fits all strategy. Instead, they must consider plans/strategies that will help all employees move to the left on the spectrum.

The pandemic affects employee mental health

Even before this unprecedented pandemic, the U.S. suffered from a lack of adequate mental health care providers. This shortage left a majority of adults without care, even when they needed it. And, when employees did seek mental health care, they often got stuck in an inefficient system with overly long wait times, among other hurdles.

With COVID-19, these old liabilities of mental health care have been joined by new challenges. WTW found that 92% of employees are feeling anxiety due to the pandemic. Worries are connected to finances, illness, overwork, and more. Along with increased anxiety, 40% of US adults struggled with mental health or substance abuse as of June 2020.

Considering who makes up your unique cohort of employees can help in responding to mental health needs appropriately. For example, young people are particularly affected due to increased social isolation, and Hispanic/Latino respondents reported pandemic-related distress at double the rate of White (non-Hispanic) ones.

In general, Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) have not been particularly effective in the age of COVID-19. With difficult to navigate systems and lower digital capabilities, EAPs face less employee engagement. On the flip side, virtual care is becoming used more often and growing more sophisticated. With brick and mortar facilities closing down due to safety or financial stress, there is a real need for virtual care. Employers are responding by seeking ways to support their employees with new technologies and modalities.

What can HR do?

Fortunately, HR can help improve employee mental health outcomes in tangible ways. Improving communication about existing benefits, enhancing mental health services and safety, addressing benefits for employees not at work (via sick leave and furloughs), reconsidering benefits for a post-COVID world, and improving social connections are actions to consider.

Here are some practical tips to consider for the immediate and eventual/gradual future:

Short term strategies include:

  • Gather data. What does your population look like? Who uses benefits and how? Use surveys, focus groups, and organic feedback to get a sense of how employees use and feel about their mental health benefits.
  • Support managers. These are your own on-the-ground eyes and ears who work closely with employees. Equip managers with the skills needed to observe and help with employee wellbeing, especially in this uncertain time.
  • Evaluate vendor performance. How are current vendor partners performing? Is your current EAP being used by employees? Are there other tools in the market to consider?
  • Show leadership buy-in. Provide clear and frequent communication from leaders to create a supportive environment.
  • Adapt. Be flexible in these times where work and life responsibilities are culminating together.

And, long term interventions might consist of:

  • Track outcomes. Is there a method for tracking outcomes and delivery? What are some key performance metrics you want to measure?
  • Look to the community. Some portion of the workforce won’t sign up for benefits. In considering employees such as these, look at community resources to help bridge the gap between no coverage and mental health help.
  • Simplify behavioral health network navigation. Provide support and resources so employers are getting the best out of their mental health resources.
  • Invest in workplace culture. Focus on ways to increase diversity and inclusivity in the workplace. Put in the effort to remove stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace.

For more strategies on prioritizing employee mental health in 2021, watch the full webinar here.

Spring Health takes an individual approach to employee healthcare. With innovative technology and a world-class network of licensed providers, Spring Health finds care to match employees exactly where they are. To get your employees a personalized mental healthcare plan today, visit Spring Health and request a demo.

Nora Hickey
Nora Hickey

Nora is a staff writer for Spring Health.

January 15, 2021