Then COVID-19 hit, and the problem spiraled out of control. With vast numbers of Americans being forced to work from home — balancing parenting, caretaking, and job duties all in one place — and many others working on the frontlines as essential workers, workers went from over-working to a feeling that they were never truly clocking out. As work became life, the already-illusory dream of work-life balance went up in smoke. A whopping 70 percent of workers reported experiencing major distractions on the job during quarantine, and only 32 percent said they were able to balance working from home with competing obligations.
Long-term mental health effects
The data is not yet in on the long-term health effects of overworking in the pandemic. But as COVID-19 escalated throughout 2020, the problems of burnout and chronic work stress mushroomed into a full-blown crisis. In October 2020, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that mental health illnesses were poised to overtake obesity as the most common pre-existing condition in the United States. More than half of Americans are now struggling with mental health issues, with young people, women, essential workers, and people experiencing economic or employment hardships due to the pandemic bearing the brunt of the impact.
It’s exactly this combination of long hours, high demand, economic instability, and work-life conflict that research has shown to be most dangerous to a person’s physical health, with experts putting it on par with exposure to secondhand smoke. And the costs aren’t just personal. They also affect a company’s and country’s bottom line. All combined, these stressors cost the United States approximately $180 billion annually.
As a result, employers have good reason to fear for the emotional well-being of their employees, and even more reason to take meaningful action to combat the coming surge of pandemic-related mental health issues.
Strategies to manage employee’s mental health
Some companies have already started taking action. Verizon launched a daily newsletter for their employees with information on managing COVID-19-related anxiety and stress, along with a speakers series helmed by experts in the field of mental health and expanded access to online crisis counseling. TIAA provided regular calls with the company’s top brass to educate employees on the mental health benefits available to them, which include expanded access to childcare benefits and 100 percent coverage for COVID-19-related medical care. The Financial Times worked intensively with their Employee Assistance Provider to offer regular, one-on-one counseling sessions and mental health webinars to their employees, as well as access to free meditation apps and sessions. And to alleviate employee’s lack of connections during the crisis, they’ve hosted regular “keeping connected” sessions for employees to socialize, and plan to incorporate animal therapy as people return to work.
But to adequately prepare to meet the mental health needs of their employees — and to reverse the startling spike in overwork and chronic stress provoked by the pandemic — employers need to make big changes to everything from company policy and culture.
Here are three tips employers can take to protect their employee’s health in the months after the pandemic and beyond.
Understand the problem
You can’t solve a problem you can’t see. So the first step in addressing workers’ mental health is to visualize the problems, the needs, and the barriers to care. In their recent report on mental health in the workplace, McKinsey recommends using an established 12-item health questionnaire to help pinpoint the mental health needs that are unique to your workplace. Armed with that information, employers can make effective, decisive interventions that can make real differences in the lives of their employees.
Bridge the structural gaps to care
Offering a few extra mental health counseling sessions might have worked as a stopgap measure in the height of the pandemic, but it is woefully inadequate to treat the long-term mental health needs that will arise in the coming months and years. To provide meaningful care, employers will have to recognize the failings of the current system and make bold moves to address them. This can start by putting mental health on par with physical health in terms of resources and benefits. By law, mental health benefits should be comparable with physical health benefits, but this is hardly ever the case. A recent study showed that office visits with therapists were five times more likely to be out of network than a visit with a primary care doctor, and many of the existing providers were not taking new clients. To compensate, employers should get creative, drastically expanding the EAP offerings and other resources to get employees the regular, affordable care they deserve.
Create a work-life balance culture in the office
Even with the best mental healthcare on tap, it’s tempting for offices to continue to expect the same levels of availability they did when everyone was working from home. But to improve mental health and curb burnout, employers need to take serious measures to reduce the amount expected of employees and model those changes in both word and deed. Employers can start by capping hours, reducing the expectation that people work round-the-clock and creating hard limits to on-the-clock time. They can also invest in benefits that will help employees reclaim both their professional and personal time, offering expanded child or elder-care benefits, paid leave, and mental health days. Ultimately, though, it’s not just about policy. Employees need to see their managers and executives talking about mental health as a priority and encouraging people to use the benefits that do exist. Some of these steps can be small and informal, like a boss talking about taking vacation days and asking employees about their plans to take time off. It can also look like formal discussions, webinars, and group support options that allow people at all levels of the company to talk honestly about mental health and self-care.
As the pandemic eases in the United States, employees will return to work with an increased expectation that the companies they worked so hard to keep afloat during tough times will take care of the mental health needs that arose out of their hard work. Now is the time for employers to think and act big to make sure that the COVID-19 crisis doesn’t become a mental health crisis.
Pavilion Mental Health and COVID-19 Resources
#mental_health_and_wellbeing Slack channel for Members
#quarantined_with_kids Slack channel for Members
On the Bench — career services program with dedicated resources for Members between roles