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Home During Uncertain Times Employers Must Recognize and Respond to Employees’ Mental Health Concerns

During Uncertain Times Employers Must Recognize and Respond to Employees’ Mental Health Concerns

The mental, physical and emotional exhaustion experienced by our front-line workers as a result of the pandemic is widely recognized.  The statistical evidence is accumulating and supports that we are all suffering in these categories. Employers must start paying attention. In fact, it should be an integral component of our business-recovery planning!

In a recent study by Versa Research nearly half (46%) of full-time employees are suffering from mental health issues and nearly one in ten employees have lowered productivity or missed work because of addiction or substance misuse; this is double what had been historically reported pre-pandemic. Additionally, the CDC indicates that 11% of adults and 25% of adolescents have contemplated suicide. Contributing to this is the fact that seven out of 10 adults cite juggling their jobs and other responsibilities as a source of significant stress and that fear of contracting the virus was a top concern for non-remote workers, particularly in lower income jobs.

Further evidence of mental strain is that drug misuse and overdoses are skyrocketing. Synthetic opioids overdoses (primarily fentanyl) increased 38.4%; cocaine overdoses increased by 26.5% and psychostimulant overdoses (methamphetamine) increased by 34.8%.

Mental health experts are referring to this situation as a second pandemic, using the term “allostatic overload” to describe the wear and tear on the body that accumulates as an individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress that exceeds their coping skills. As employers, although we can’t prevent allostatic overload, it is in the best interest of our employees and our businesses that we find ways to accommodate its increasing effect on employees’ mental health and ultimately, their productivity. Additionally, we have an obligation under ADA to address these health-threatening conditions to enable qualified employees to perform the essential functions of their jobs.

How can we do this? First and foremost, we need to engage and lead by example. The following ideas provide a good starting point:

  • Let employees hear you talk about your stress and the actions you have taken to deal with it.
  • Identify ways to diminish stigma. Even before the pandemic, studies found that nearly 85% of people are uncomfortable discussing mental illness at work. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, eight in 10 workers with a mental health condition do not get treatment because of the stigma. Simply put: talk about it. Having sincere conversations with employees destigmatizes the idea of mental health as a “problem” and instead, positions it as a workplace challenge, just as COVID has been.
  • Consider a routine email delivering facts and resources about dealing with stress.
  • With fewer opportunities for organic conversation, we need to get creative. Weave inquiries about mental health into conversations. For example, “This project certainly is hard to accomplish right now with so many complications and stresses. It seems we’re all feeling stressed these days, how’s your mental health holding up?  It can help to talk about it – please let me know if I’m over-stepping here, OK?”  Then let silence play out and be a good listener.
  • Establish a company-wide day of gratitude. There is actually an increased flow of dopamine, the brain chemical that makes us feel happy when we practice gratitude.
  • Train middle and senior management to:
    • Recognize and model more comfort with their own stress;
    • Recognize the tolls that stress is taking and support the employees they manage; and
    • Become familiar with corporate or community resources available for employees such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or wellness programs available through insurance companies or community mental health agencies

As an employer, your role needs to include “mental health supporter.”  A key behavior for this newly required role is communication, communication and more communication. Finding creative measures to achieve this for building a mental health supportive workplace will reap benefits for every part of your business.

A modified version of this article was originally printed in the March/April 2021 issue of Ohio Matters.