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Stress, anxiety, and isolation — how to support employee mental health during the coronavirus pandemic

Even before the coronavirus swept the globe, America was in the middle of a mental health crisis. Now, stress, uncertainty, fear, and anxiety about COVID-19 — coupled with the loneliness and isolation of physical distancing — pose new threats to our collective mental health. You have an opportunity to build trust with your employees by helping them through this challenging time. And, fortunately, there are more ways you can support their mental health than ever before.

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COVID-19’s lasting impact on mental health

The current situation has made existing symptoms of depression and anxiety for some people worse, and caused new symptoms for others. As early as March, nearly half of American adults said the pandemic had negatively affected their mental health. In one survey, 63% of respondents reported feelings of depression, anxiety, or both.1 And during the first week COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic, new prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications increased by nearly 40%.2

Cultivating resilience is key – and you can help empower employees to cope in positive ways.

While these numbers may sound alarming, they’re actually normal reactions to overwhelming change. It’s inevitable that some employees will experience new or heightened feelings of depression and anxiety as they navigate through these new challenges. In the meantime, cultivating resilience is key, and you can empower your workforce to cope in positive ways.

The impact of COVID-19 on employee mental health: 3 in 5 employees are experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, or both. 8 in 10 are experiencing symptoms of moderate to severe distress.

Stress levels have skyrocketed since the onset of the pandemic

Fear and uncertainty about COVID-19 have caused a tremendous uptick in physical, emotional, and financial stress. Nearly 9 in 10 workers are experiencing moderate to extreme stress, and 7 in 10 say this is the most stressful time of their entire career.3 62% of employees lose at least 1 hour of productivity every day due to COVID-19 related stress, with 32% losing 2 hours or more.4 These figures underscore the importance of supporting your employees with resources that can help.

The coronavirus pandemic is causing unprecedented levels of stress. 7 in 10 employees say this is the most stressful time of their career.

 

Even before the pandemic, there was a loneliness epidemic

Increased isolation as a result of new work from home policies, physical distancing recommendations, and widespread quarantines is making a bad situation worse. And while loneliness isn’t classified as a mental health condition, there’s a strong link between the two.

Lonely employees may be more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide.5 And the impact of loneliness on physical health is on par with other serious health risks, including obesity and cardiovascular disease. In fact, being chronically lonely is equivalent to smoking a staggering 15 cigarettes a day.6 We’re all experiencing some degree of loneliness at the same time. Staying connected with your team — and helping them stay connected to each other — is one more way you can help them right now.

Consider this: Better mental health support now could be a competitive advantage when the pandemic ends. 93% of employees agree that the companies that stay in business through the pandemic will be the ones who actively support employee mental health. But only 35% say their employer is taking more of an interest in workforce mental health or increasing that support more now than they did in the past.

The promising potential of digital mental health solutions

The coronavirus pandemic has created an immediate, increased need for remote access to mental health care. And clinicians are flocking to online platforms — many for the first time — to provide it. Fortunately, Kaiser Permanente has offered telehealth visits for mental health care needs for many years, so we were able to scale up quickly.

During this time of high anxiety and physical distancing, many people are also turning to digital mental health apps. As early as March, the myStrength app — which is available to Kaiser Permanente members at no cost — had a 140% increase in utilization.10 Apps like these are helpful for many reasons. Besides being remote and contact-free, they’re available on demand, 24/7 — which is incredibly useful as employees adjust to new schedules, roles, and routines. Apps are also anonymous, so employees can access mental health resources without fearing the stigma around asking for help. Four out of five workers with a mental health condition say shame and stigma have prevented them from seeking traditional mental health care — and these tools can be an important first step.11

Employees are more open to telehealth due to COVID-19. 2 in 3 say the pandemic made them more likely to try virtual care, and 88% who tried telehealth for the first time during the pandemic would use it again.

Strategies to support workforce mental health

It’s important to focus on what is within our control — like taking good care of ourselves to build and maintain resilience. The more you help your employees do that now, the better off everyone will be as time goes by. Here are some meaningful steps you can take right now:

Promote resources — and tap into digital solutions.
Make sure employees are aware of mental health resources. Consider adding formal programs like Mental Health First Aid. external link that can help encourage employees to look out for each other. And explore mental health and emotional wellness apps if you don’t already offer them.

Empower employees to prioritize health and family.
Allow for flexibility during the workday so employees can balance family, health, and wellness activities. Encourage healthy habits like exercise, sleep, proper nutrition, meditation, and virtually connecting with family, loved ones, and friends. Talk about the importance of downtime and self-care. Make sure employees know that you want them to take breaks — and set expectations about schedules and availability to avoid creating an “always on” work culture that could lead to burnout.

Address financial concerns.
Employees who know they’ll be able to keep their job — and their paycheck — have one less thing to worry about. Be transparent. If you can’t make promises, share what you’re doing to help provide job security. Things are evolving moment-by-moment, so share what you know today, and talk about how you’ll support employees if things change.

Show empathy and be vulnerable.
Ask employees how they are before getting down to work. Find out how your employees are taking care of their mental health, and share how you’re taking care of yours. Acknowledge that we’re all figuring this out at the same time.

Lead with the positive whenever you can.
Take time to show appreciation and encourage everyone else on your team to do the same. Positive feedback doesn’t need to be formal to be effective. A personal thank you email, or a shout out during a team meeting can go a long way to make employees feel valued and engaged while they work from home.

Promote a sense of purpose.
Shared meaning builds strong connections. Helping employees find meaning in their work and understand the mission of your organization can help them feel more connected — even from a distance — and protect them against the harmful effects of loneliness.

Shared experiences make teams stronger

One positive thing to consider is how so many people have come together — from a distance — to support each other. All of us — from the mailroom to the C-suite — are going through these challenges together. Actively supporting the mental health and wellness of your workforce can help keep your business as healthy as possible under these circumstances. And by doing it, you’ll create a sense of community and compassion that can make your team stronger in the long run.

 

  • 1

    Erica Hutchins Coe et al., “Returning to Resilience: The Impact of COVID-19 on Mental Health and Substance Use,” McKinsey & Company, April 2, 2020.

  • 2

    Matthew Gavidia, “How Has COVID-19 Affected Mental Health, Severity of Stress Among Employees?” American Journal of Managed Care, April 20, 2020.

  • 3

    “New 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.*

  • 4

    See note 3.

  • 5

    Manfred E. Beutel et al., “Loneliness in the General Population: Prevalence, Determinants and Relations to Mental Health,” BMC Psychiatry, March 20, 2017.

  • 6

    Vivek Murthy, “Connecting at Work,” Harvard Business Review, September 2017.

  • 7

    See note 3.

  • 8

    See note 3.

  • 9

    See note 3.

  • 10

    Rebecca Robbins, “Coronavirus Pandemic Sets Up Potential Breakout Moment for Virtual Mental Health Care,” statnews.com, April 13, 2020.

  • 11

    “StigmaFree Company,” National Alliance on Mental Illness, NAMI.org, accessed May 7, 2020.

*Kaiser Permanente has an equity investment in Ginger through its Kaiser Permanente Ventures program.