Home Don’t forget about employees’ mental health during pandemic

Don’t forget about employees’ mental health during pandemic

(December 2020) Employees are the backbone of any organization.  Without them being healthy, knowledgeable and able to perform their jobs, it’s difficult to be successful.  So even as employers are focused on surviving the economic havoc 2020 is wreaking, attention must still be paid to the safety, health and productivity of the workforce.

Not only do employers have health concerns related to the COVID-19 virus, but they also need to be concerned about employees’ mental health — including the misuse of alcohol and other drugs. For the most part, these issues are not “in our faces.” But if statistics can be believed, there are serious problems taking seed during these unprecedented times of working remotely, under partial or whole quarantines, especially while trying to maintain “normal” business operations.

Even before all the stresses of 2020, rates of illicit drug use among employees were trending in the wrong direction. According to Quest Diagnostics, the percentage of American workers testing positive for illicit drugs hit a 16-year high in 2019. Add fear of the virus, loss of familiar daily structure, isolation, needs of our children at home due to social distancing and remote learning, unemployment, financial stress, inability to get medical care that is deemed nonessential, increased domestic violence and child abuse/neglect because many homes are not safe and it’s clear that a cauldron that is cooking employees to their breaking points.

The statistics confirm these concerns:

  • 56% of Americans report having at least one negative mental health effect from COVID-19-related worry and stress.
  • 1 in 3 Americans are more likely to drink alcohol during working hours while working from home. Nationally, 36% of men and 27% of women stated they are drinking on the clock.
  • Over 30% of adults in the U.S. report symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, up from 11% in 2019.
  • Up to 75,000 individuals are projected to die from substance misuse and suicide because of the COVID-19 pandemic (i.e. “deaths of despair”).
  • The Franklin County coroner has reported the first four months of 2020 had 50% more overdose deaths than the same period in 2019.

It is vital that employers understand these facts and be sure their “houses of employment” are fortified for this new reality. Here are a few ideas to help get you started:

  • Highlight an employee assistance program or wellness benefit available to employees. Be sure everyone has the website address and any needed log-in information. Make it as easy as possible for them to reach out. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a “coping with life” resource page that includes both mental health and substance misuse pointers.
  • Go online and identify the local, helping resources around daycare, food, financial issues and assistance, housing, private and community behavioral mental health, and substance misuse screening and services that are available and let employees know about these with a special, supportive communication to them and their families.
  • Poll employees to get suggestions about what they need to feel safe, and then act on some of those suggestions.
  • Send out a special bulletin to all employees with specific information such as low-risk drinking guidelines (e.g. rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov) to help employees make healthy choices if they decide to consume alcohol.

Keep in mind that, statistically, you are likely to have employees in recovery from mental health or substance use disorders and the isolation and change in familial patterns that everyone is experiencing with COVID-19 can be even more challenging for them. Let employees know that if they or someone they know is in recovery, that individual is encouraged to be honest and ask for assistance if they feel their recovery is in danger. And, of course, since supervisors are often the first to “see” when an employee is struggling, be sure they are confident and empowered to intervene if an employee is showing signs of stress or trouble.

These actions are not big, time-consuming or expensive. But every measure taken to help employees feel supported can possibly save a life, a job or even one’s business.

*A version of this article originally appeared in The Columbus Dispatch on September 26, 2020, as an op-ed, written by Dee Mason.