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COVID-19 and employee mental health — supporting your workforce

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a severe impact on our collective mental health. 81% of employees have experienced mental health issues due to the coronavirus pandemic — with 1 in 4 significantly or extremely affected.1 And more than 13% of adults have started or increased substance use since the pandemic began.2

For some employees, the stress of returning to work could cause a surge in mental health symptoms. Knowing how to support workforce mental health — and creating a psychologically healthy work environment where employees feel safe, respected, and empowered — is more important than ever.

The overwhelming impact of COVID-19 on employee mental health: 90% of employers say COVID-19 has affected workforce mental health and productivity.
Employees are experiencing:

  • Social isolation
  • Health-related anxieties
  • Fear of uncertainty
  • Financial stress
  • Grief and loss
  • Increased substance use

Steps to support workforce mental health

With so many stresses and struggles brought on by COVID-19, it’s clear that mental health needs to be at the heart of your workforce wellness strategy going forward. As a leader, you can begin achieving this by:

  • Ensuring access to robust mental health services — Make sure employees know how to access the mental health care offered by their health plan.
  • Optimizing employee assistance program (EAP) services — Communicate what is offered and remind employees that their participation is confidential. Consider adding EAP services or alternatives if you don’t currently have them.
  • Providing self-care tools — Promote emotional well-being resources available through your employer health and wellness partners.
  • Strengthening your overall workforce health strategy — Offer programs addressing exercise, nutrition, smoking cessation, sleep, stress, etc.
  • Providing managers with training and support — Prepare them to confidently address workplace mental health and well-being and support employees’ psychological health.

Your employees get comprehensive support at Kaiser Permanente

  • Evidence-based, goal-oriented, feedback-informed care
  • Screening for mental health symptoms in primary care and other specialties
  • Mental health telehealth as clinically appropriate
  • Individual therapy, group therapy, psychiatric care, support groups, intensive outpatient, inpatient, addiction care, and more
  • Digital self-care tools, including myStrength and Calm. external link

Learn more about mental health and addiction medicine at Kaiser Permanente >

Supporting employees through grief, loss, and social disruption

Your employees and their families could be dealing with grief and loss for many different reasons. They may have lost loved
ones to COVID-19, or experienced grief over political animosities or racial injustices. Some have felt a loss of identity, personal
freedom, or social support during the pandemic. And many have faced financial hardships as well. It’s no surprise that 7 out of
10 employees say the pandemic has been the most stressful time of their professional career.3

Help make employees feel safe and supported by focusing on:

  • Emotional safety — Maintain an open dialogue so employees know it’s safe to express their needs and seek support.
  • Physical safety — Remind employees about policies like physical distancing that are intended to keep them safe and healthy.
  • Cultural sensitivity — Acknowledge the fact that political discord and racial injustice can have a powerful effect on employee well-being.
  • Leadership transparency — Provide insight and explanation into why policies are put in place. Lead by example by acknowledging your own struggles.
Did you know? Employees who know they can consistently practice physical distancing at work have lower risk for anxiety or depression

Managing stigma in the workplace

Some people associate heightened COVID-19 risk with specific groups of people, despite no evidence to support these false beliefs. This stigma is driven by fear and anxiety — not facts — and can compromise safety, health, and interpersonal relationships at work.

Who’s more likely to experience stigma related to COVID-19?

  • Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) employees
  • Employees choosing to wear or not wear masks
  • Employees who have recently traveled
  • Employees returning to work after recovering from COVID-19

Stigma can cause severe mental and emotional distress
Sadly, many stigmatized groups have faced rejection, discrimination — even verbal abuse and physical violence — during the pandemic. These potential threats can make people afraid to seek care if they do have COVID-19 symptoms. It’s essential for leaders to create inclusive, stigma-free work environments where COVID-19 risks can be mitigated effectively and empathetically.

You can take a stand against stigma by:

  • Ensuring privacy and confidentiality for employees seeking health care related to COVID-19
  • Sharing factual, accurate information about how COVID-19 spreads
  • Reaffirming policies against workplace violence and bullying
  • Speaking out against negative rumors and discriminatory behaviors

Moving forward together

Even as the pandemic’s end may be in sight, many employees are struggling. But you have an opportunity to build trust with them as we prepare for the next normal — by acknowledging the toll COVID-19 has taken on all of us. By leading with empathy and taking a strong position against stigma. And most importantly, by making sure your employees have access to high-quality care, resources, and support. Because when you commit to being a champion for workforce mental health, your team — and your organization — can only grow stronger as a result.

View a complete list of mental health resources >

For information about Kaiser Permanente health plans

1“American Worker in Crisis: Understanding Employee Mental Health in Unprecedented Times,” Lyra Health, July 2020.
2Mark Czeisler, et al., “Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, August 14, 2020.
3New Data from Ginger Shows Nearly 70 Percent of Workers Feel More Stressed During COVID-19 Than at Any Other Point in Their Entire Professional Career,” Ginger press release, April 9, 2020.
4Fan-Yun Lan, et . al., “Association between SARS-CoV-2 infection, exposure risk and mental health among a cohort of essential retail workers in the USA,” Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, October 30, 2020.