Nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, employee mental health is at an all-time low. In addition to concerns directly related to the disease, mental and emotional well-being have become top concerns as restrictions and closures upended typical daily routines and lifestyles. Additionally, other factors such as seasonal affective disorder and depression, holiday stress, and political fears have likely culminated to make this winter one of the most challenging and anxiety-inducing times for Americans in recent years.

Winter contributing to seasonal affective disorder, depression and anxiety

Unfortunately, despite the promising news of vaccine distribution, employees are not getting more hopeful. December 2020 marked the lowest levels of employee mental well-being, according to the Mental Health Index by Total Brain and the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions. Between November and December, the Index reported a 48% increased risk for depressive disorders. During the same time, overall employee focus plummeted by 62%, the worst drop in one year. Negativity increased by 9%. These alarming numbers come after several months of steady and slight improvement, between March and November. In fact, December’s numbers wiped out 75% of the positive increases made since last May.

Louis Gagnon, the CEO of Total Brain, said in a statement:

This is a crisis that should alarm everyone in the business community. Business policies designed to support the mental health of employees are essential.

When employees are depressed, work suffers considerably. For workers aged 20 to 39, their focus was 92% worse in December; similarly, for ages 40 to 59, it was 89%. For workers over 60, focus was a shocking 380% worse. When workers are this mentally and emotionally strained, they simply cannot perform well. Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that poor mental health will cost employers nearly $6 trillion by 2030.

Target Pandemic-Induced Mental Health Struggles

With roughly one in five Americans suffering from a mental health condition, it is critical that employers find ways to address these issues and support employees. While it is important that managers are properly trained to recognize the warning signs of mental or emotional struggles (such as personality changes, irritability, fatigue, or weight loss), these health issues are now so widespread that all employers need to be proactive in supporting their workforce’s mental well-being—even when they do not suspect any issues at all. After all, according to a study by Mind Share Partners, SAP, and Qualtrics, about two-thirds of employees hide their mental health condition at work because of the stigma.

In recent years, employers have been increasing their investment in mental health support. Younger employees especially demand a more holistic approach to their health and well-being and appreciate resources geared towards supporting their mental and emotional health. COVID-19 has also encouraged many employers to boost their wellness offerings and virtual resources, at a time when many workers are more stressed out, dealing with loneliness, and tired of pandemic restrictions. While more common wellness benefits like access to mental wellness resources, counseling, paid time off, stress management tools, and meditation and mindfulness resources are all wonderful, companies can expand benefits to specifically target some of the struggles unique to this time period and pandemic.

Importance of mental health in the workplace

Address Social Isolation. Loneliness has increased dramatically due to social distancing and isolation protocols. Virtual communication is great, and often easy to implement, but companies should start thinking about more creative ways to get people together. This can be as simple as organizing a phone call (if all employees are used to is digital messages boards or videos) but could also include small outdoor gatherings that have safety protocols in place.

Encourage “Staycations” And Personal Days Off. Increasing paid time off might sound like a great way for employees to take mental health days—but not if they don’t use that benefit. Make sure that employees are encouraged to use their vacation time even though they may be unable to travel currently. Communicate the benefits that personal days off without responsibilities or plans can provide, such as stress reduction, improved relaxation, and mental clarity.

Support Families And Personal Finance. For many, it is not job tasks that are weighing down their mental and emotional state the most. With businesses closing and economies struggling, many do not know how to handle a loss of income in their household, or they are struggling under increased caregiving and schooling responsibilities. Benefits that support caregivers along with resources and education on personal finance can help guide many employees that are feeling lost amidst major life changes and events.

Help Employees Learn Something New. Employees may be feeling discouraged and unmotivated nearly a year into the pandemic, especially for those working from home and coping with less structure in their week. Getting to know an employee’s career goals and then helping them with education or relevant training can boost their inspiration and sense of purpose. Learning something new, working with a different team or department, or taking on challenging roles may help improve their engagement, confidence, and feelings of self-worth. Then, keep encouragement high by celebrating accomplishments (big and small).

Above all, employers should make sure that they create an open and supportive environment where people feel comfortable getting and asking for help when they need it. A positive work culture can be what sustains employees through this difficult time period.

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