Over a third of workers in the U.S. are currently struggling with mental health issues, ranging from moderate distress to serious mental illness. That’s according to a study conducted in March, just as the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to hit the country. Three months into the pandemic ― facing a tanking economy and a public health crisis in which nearly 100,000 people have died in the U.S. ― and workers’ mental health is being tested like never before.
Unlike a natural disaster that has an endpoint followed by cleanup, or a recession where experts can predict recovery based on past economic downturns (each of which can be very traumatic in its own right), we simply don’t know what’s ahead, explained Cheryl Carmin, psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. And that’s incredibly stressful for most people.
“A lack of control feeds into anxiety in a major way,” Carmin said. “There is also a sense of trauma here, because people are going through some very difficult times.”
Essential workers are battling to keep going and people are being forced to leave the safety of their homes to go to work without sufficient protection as states reopen. Meanwhile those working from home continue to juggle their jobs with childcare or caring for older or sick relatives, and others remain isolated and anxious. On top of all this, the death toll continues to tick upward and many are trying to come to terms with bereavement during a period of social distancing. It all adds up to a perfect storm when it comes to mental health struggles.
Seven out of 10 people said this is the most stressful time in their entire career, according to a recent MarketWatch survey conducted at the beginning of the pandemic. And, as a Gallup poll done in late March showed, 60% of U.S. adults reported significant stress and worry on a daily basis.
“This pandemic is showing us that mental health issues are not confined to a small minority in the workplace,” said Johnny Taylor, CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management. “Research is showing us how extensive the problem is, and that’s changing the conversation.”
Employers are starting to respond. From small, temporary initiatives ― think Zoom “music listening parties” and digital fitness classes ― to longer-term solutions such as expanding telehealth and therapy options under employee health care insurance, many companies are trying to find a strategy that fits. But there are calls to do much more. An April 2020 survey done by Standard Insurance Company found that 91% of people believe companies should be helping employees manage their mental health issues, but fewer than a third of respondents say employers are very good or excellent at supporting their mental health needs.
In the U.S., the onus has long been on the individual to address mental health struggles, and their difficulties are often seen as weaknesses. It’s led many people to feel that admitting mental health challenges will push them back in their careers, and it prevents some from seeking help. The April study, for example, found that only 38% of respondents felt comfortable seeking help from employers due to perceived stigma.
The coronavirus ― with its dragging timeline and wide-ranging impact ― could change this.
“The needle is shifting in regard to recognition and normalization of mental health concerns, and the understanding that employers need to address this.”
Everyone is affected, including company managers and business leaders. Executives have now been put into a situation where they, too, have struggled with childcare, eldercare, and being productive, said William Kassler, deputy health officer at IBM Watson Health. They’ve faced their own emotional challenges, and he believes that will inevitably make them more responsive and sensitive to supporting and prioritizing mental health in the workplace.
“No one can predict what’s ahead, of course, but I think what we’ll see is a whole different kind of empathy, and this time it’s coming from the top down,” said Kassler. “Which is what you need for true cultural change in an organization.”
Even before the pandemic, some businesses had woken up to the need to prioritize well-being.
Over the last five years there has been increased awareness among employers of mental health in the workplace, said Laurie Chamberlin, president of U.S. professional recruitment and solutions at workforce solutions provider the Adecco Group. But despite some progress, she says impact overall on these types of programs has generally been slow.
Now, the pandemic has added new urgency.
“Everyone, at every level, has been thrown out of what was considered predictable and certain, and into this world with a ton of ambiguity,” said Carmin. “So, you’re seeing employers trying anything they think will work to help employees feel better right now.”
Professional services firm PWC, for instance, is providing “well-being coaching sessions” for employees to use whenever they feel like it. And content creation company Thunderbird Entertainment, with offices in Vancouver and Los Angeles, has introduced mental health benefits such as providing 24/7 virtual access to therapists under employee health insurance, plus free wellness sessions and no-meeting Fridays to avoid “Zoom fatigue.”
The mindfulness app Headspace said it has seen a more than 400% increase since mid-March in the number of requests from companies who want to provide their employees with access to it.
While these efforts to address immediate needs are important, tackling the core of employee well-being requires a more fundamental rethinking of how a company engages with its employees, say experts, pointing to the need for a more human, empathetic approach.
“This whole situation is building trust and relationships in new ways, despite the stress that comes with adjustment,” said Scott Beth, chief diversity and inclusion officer at tax software company Intuit. In response to the pandemic, the company has introduced online tools for remote workers and access to mental health services. It has also expanded its family support time leave policy, providing four weeks of paid time off to provide care for children or elderly family members as well as an additional two weeks of paid sick time for all employees to adjust to closure of schools, worksites and daycares.
“Not everyone will be coming back to an office or a campus, I think, but they’re feeling connected and supported anyway,” Beth said about the company’s employees. “Some of them, who’ve struggled with mental health, may feel like they’re being heard for the first time. To me, that’s a big step forward.”
Before the pandemic, Rob Farinella, CEO of Atlanta-based advertising agency Blue Sky, considered working from home to be a rare perk reserved only for the most tenured of his 28 employees. He was dubious that people could achieve a high level of productivity if they weren’t in the office.
But during one-on-one calls or group tele-meetings, Farinella talked with his employees about their emotional health and shared some of his own struggles with trying to stay positive in the midst of this much uncertainty. This has allowed him to foster a culture where people can now be much more open about the “tough stuff.”
Seeing his co-workers tackle stress, anxiety, and frustration in different ways, while still staying productive, he now understands the benefits of remote working ― and knows that feeling connected is more important for collaboration and cohesion than being in the same physical space. Many have told him that knowing they can work from home in the near future helps them feel less anxious and stressed about the uncertainty prompted by the pandemic.
“All of this has completely transformed my perspective,” he said. “I feel like I’m rethinking everything.” Working from the office will now be an option, not a mandate.
More flexible work-from-home policies, however, may only be possible for so-called knowledge workers who rely mostly on a laptop to do their work. But for those who can’t work remotely — like those in health care, retail, hospitality, construction, agriculture, manufacturing, delivery services, and every other industry where being on the job means showing up to a worksite — there’s even greater need to address the toll of work-related mental health issues, said Carmin. Frontline essential workers are literally putting their lives on the line for a paycheck, and many are concerned about possibly bringing those health risks back home.
Some companies are working to address these issues with announcements of more investment in mental health services specifically for these employees. Starbucks, for example, announced that employees and their family members will receive access to 20 mental health sessions with a therapist or coach each year. And CVS Health recently committed $1 million to mental health services for frontline workers after seeing a 200% increase in usage of virtual mental health visits compared to the same period last year.
Efforts like these by large companies tend to showcase the importance of services, said Carmin, and may inspire others with frontline workers to do the same.
Companies also need to look at their bereavement policies, she added. In 2017, Facebook, Airbnb and General Mills all expanded bereavement from the typical one to four days allotted by most companies to up to 20 days of paid time off. Although there haven’t been any similar announcements of changes to bereavement policies due to COVID-19, with the number of deaths continuing to increase, it’s likely that policies like these will need to be reviewed, Carmin said.
Ultimately, if we want this greater awareness and empathy spurred by the pandemic to stick, experts say it requires companies to embrace the idea of its workforce as a community, to be more flexible to mental health needs ― both in the way we work as well as the health care options provided ― and to actually listen to, and implement, employee feedback.
“The needle is shifting in regard to recognition and normalization of mental health concerns, and the understanding that employers need to address this,” said Denise Rousseau, professor of organizational behavior and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College.
Having an environment of “we’re all in this together” can go a long way toward creating a sense of community when it comes to mental health, said Rousseau.
Greater flexibility and understanding is also needed when it comes to insurance coverage, said Rousseau. Employers need to focus on destigmatizing mental health issues and offering assistance. The point is to help employees see mental health checkups as a normal part of life, Rousseau added, similar to those for physical health.
A widespread mental health revamp will take time, and in many ways, we’re only at the beginning phase of understanding the breadth of the issue, believes Rousseau. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we can adjust and become more resilient much faster than we may have thought.
“What’s new is not that issues like anxiety and depression are becoming more prevalent, because that was happening before coronavirus,” said Chamberlin. “What we’re seeing now is that people are caring about it more, they’re willing to do something about it, the stigma is fading fast.”
“Now, we’re ready to turn that awareness into action,” she said, “and hopefully long-term action at that.”
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