Coronavirus mental health epidemic leaves employers in US scrambling

Woman with head in hands. (File photo: Shutterstock)

As the global death toll from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic climbs, employers are scrambling to address the explosive rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse and potential waves of suicides that have emerged along with it. Like the virus itself, this secondary epidemic is expected to affect far more people than the existing healthcare system can address, leaving employers to pick up the slack.

The numbers are daunting. Vida Health Inc., a digital network of therapists and clinicians that works with companies like Cisco, Visa, PayPal and Boeing, has seen 15-20 percent week-on-week increases in mental health and stress-related appointments since mid-March, and a 30-50 percent boost in new client interest. “Everyone is looking for virtual mental healthcare right now,” said chief executive officer Stephanie Tilenius. “We’re just hiring as fast as we can.”

Just under one-fifth of a company’s employees typically have a mental health disorder, as evidenced on health insurance claims, Tilenius said. In recent weeks, that number has risen to between 60 and 70 percent. “Everybody’s got some level of anxiety with this pandemic, she said.

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Elke Van Hoof, a psychologist who specializes in stress and burnout, says companies need to provide a tight web of tools and support for employees during the course of the regular workday. Examples include webinars on topics like pandemic resilience and work-life balance. Organizations should also have staffers trained on both early signs of psychological struggle and how to intervene.

Most larger companies in Europe already have this infrastructure in place due to European Union occupational safety legislation. Employers are obliged to ensure mental and social well-being, regularly evaluate it, and address lagging areas while maintaining employee privacy-which is most easily accomplished through a well-being department. Specific practices vary country by country, but many companies have a Chief Wellbeing Officer or Chief Happiness Officer specifically focused on these tasks.

“It’s a very good and efficient system to reduce long-term absence and dropout,” says Van Hoof.

Axa Belgium S.A., a Paris-based insurance company, has beefed up existing infrastructure. The company already employed a wellbeing team of eight and trains managers how to converse with employees about mental health, allowing them to intervene before problems arise.

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“People that already had difficulties before the pandemic-now life becomes even more difficult because it’s an extra layer of problems,” said Axa chief happiness officer Elke Aelbrecht, who works out of the company’s Brussels office. The company created digital toolkits for both employees and managers on relevant topics like stress, fear, insecurity and parenting.

Alternative methods

US employers usually don’t take such a direct approach. Mental health triage often falls to HR departments, and chief wellbeing officers are few and far between. Most companies instead offer workers access to treatment through insurance benefits and employee assistance programs (EAP), while also pushing subscriptions to meditation and stress relief platforms.

Such perks are popular. Intuit Inc., which is transitioning to remote work, says its 9,400 employees have completed 42,661 stress relief and wellbeing sessions on the platform Whil in the past five weeks-nearly the same number of sessions logged in the two years prior. The company is providing ten extra days of paid time off, plus another 20 days of family support time employees can use in small chunks, like an afternoon off for homeschooling.

While extra time off will help employees manage stress, vacation alone does not actually lower stress unless it is part of a coordinated effort to address the factors causing it, such as job uncertainty or financial strains, Van Hoof said.

The stigma around mental health remains endemic in America. Employees largely remain quiet about personal challenges, and depression alone costs employers over $100 billion per year, mostly in missed work and low productivity. While many companies have expanded EAP programs, only a fraction of eligible workers take advantage of them.

“We have a long way to go to eliminate stigma,” says Elyse Cohen, senior director of health, wellness and food programs at the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation. “The pandemic has catapulted business leaders into leaning into an issue that they may have shied away from.”

Van Hoof says normalizing the fact that anyone can suffer is key to removing such stigma. Rather than labeling a worker as, say, depressed or sleep disordered, she emphasizes the underlying and often relatable issues: cognitive fatigue or an inability to re-energize. “It should be normalized so that people are open about it and can proactively seek help as soon as possible,” she said.

The coronavirus pandemic is a difficult situation for everyone, not just those with preexisting mental health conditions. Some are struggling with fear or loneliness, while others melting down while working at home with children. Companies that provide better care for workers at this time will likely emerge stronger for it.

“This is a defining moment for the reputation of companies,” says Scott Beth, Intuit’s chief diversity and inclusion officer. “Five years from now, people will remember how their companies treated them during the most profound shock of our work lifetimes, and it will really speak to our brands and our reputations for a very, very long time.”

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Last Update: 13:53 KSA 16:53 - GMT 13:53
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