4 Employee Mental Health Issues HR Leaders Worry About and How to Address Them

May 25, 2021

By Rachel Heston-Davis

After over a year of COVID deaths, social distancing, job insecurity, and political conflict–it’s no surprise that about 60 percent of employees are worried about their stress and mental wellbeing. The pandemic and resulting economic fallout have caused ongoing stress for people around the world—including your employees.

As a people leader, you likely feel the weight of responsibility for your employees’ mental health during these ultra-challenging times. Paycor reported in January that 86 percent of business leaders are worried about mental health in the workplace. Luckily, you don’t have to solve these problems alone. 

We’ve identified some of the main mental health concerns employers have reported managing this year, along with strategies to help you and your employees cope. Here are four substantial concerns, and how to handle them. 

1. Helping employees cope with stress and transitions

The past year has forced unexpected changes in many industries and workplaces. Employees have been asked to adapt to changing regulations and new protocols at work. Teams shrank and workloads shifted as cuts and hiring freezes went into effect. These transitions have piled more stress onto workers who were already struggling with mental health challenges. 

Some have turned to unhealthy coping mechanisms as a result. Substance use disorder is on the rise, as is social isolation. Both problems can exacerbate existing mental health needs.

So how do you help employees who are suffering from stress or mental illness? One of the most powerful tools in your arsenal is change management. Change management is a method of implementing change that helps employers, managers, and employees navigate transitions at work in a more mentally healthy way.

Take three important steps to help employees move through times of change:

  • Intervene appropriately when employees experience emotional distress or mental health crises.
  • Model self-care behaviors. This will encourage others to prioritize their health and wellness, too.
  • Promote psychological safety in the workplace and on teams—in other words, reassure employees and team members that they can share thoughts, ideas, and struggles without being judged or penalized.

2. Dismantling barriers to mental health care

You provide mental health resources and benefits, but how do you know your employees use them and if they are getting better?

A major roadblock to mental health support in the workplace is a lack of interest in the provided employee assistance programs (EAPs). According to Dr. Joe Grasso, PhD, Director of Workforce Mental Health at Lyra, “EAPs are poorly utilized, but HR benefits leaders may not necessarily understand why.”

If this is the case at your organization, survey your employees to find out why they aren’t accessing your EAP. Possible barriers could include:

  • Employees aren’t aware of your EAP or don’t think it will help. In Lyra Health’s State of Mental Health at Work Report 2021, 36 percent of employees surveyed said they had not tried to access mental health care using their employer-sponsored benefits, and 31 percent said they thought their employer offered mental health benefits, but weren’t sure what they were.
  • Employees are afraid that information about their mental health won’t be kept confidential. A knowledgeable benefits expert can explain to your employees about the protocols in place to keep their information private.
  • Complicated enrollment processes may discourage employees from seeking care. For example, an employee might search your EAP or health plan’s list of mental health providers only to find that some aren’t taking new patients, some have months-long waitlists, and others have switched out of the insurance network. Navigating this maze may feel too burdensome to an employee already struggling with stress and mental illness.
  • Your company offers solutions that don’t work well for employees. Meditation apps, zero copays, flexible time off, and other “quick-fix” solutions for mental health may not help as much as you think, and are unlikely to serve as long-term solutions. That’s why it’s important to know the key criteria to look for when evaluating your current mental health benefits or choosing a new solution.

One of the biggest barriers to seeking mental health care, however, is within your control to change: a work culture that stigmatizes mental health challenges. If employees feel uncomfortable sharing their mental health struggles, or fear that they’ll be stigmatized or penalized in some way, many who need help won’t seek it. How do you create a work culture that welcomes these discussions and supports those who struggle?

3. Creating a safe, inclusive, and mentally Healthy Workplace Culture

It’s essential to take action to reduce mental health-related stigma and normalize seeking care. 

Regular communication from company leaders, managers, and individual contributors can help foster a safe and trusting environment. For example, company-wide emails that explain your mental health benefits can reassure employees that mental health is a safe subject to broach at work. Host an awareness-raising workshop to help educate your workforce about mental health, or bring it up at a company-wide meeting. Remember, silence about this topic breeds shame for those who suffer.

Second, help your employees feel empowered with tools and resources to take care of themselves. This begins with access to mental health providers through your benefits program, but it can also include  flexible schedules, paid time off, and paid mental health days to allow employees to schedule appointments with providers and step away from work when they’re overwhelmed.

Third, create an environment of mutual support among employees. Everyone wants to feel supported at work–not just when mental illness strikes, but throughout the year. A caring company culture can benefit mentally healthy workers too.

Additionally, ensure that your mental health resources and company culture are inclusive of all employees. Employers sometimes overlook inclusivity when considering mental health benefits, and this oversight can hinder  your company’s efforts to create a safe and supportive environment. Your work culture can’t be healthy if a portion of your workforce feels unseen, so make sure your network of mental health care providers is as diverse as your workforce, and make sure your benefit program’s providers practice culturally responsive care. This type of care takes an individual’s cultural background and intersectionality into consideration when addressing mental health challenges and finding solutions.

Finally, addressing substance use disorder is critical to maintaining a psychologically safe workplace–which means your mental health resources should cover substance abuse treatment and education. A person under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or other substances may exhibit behavior that makes their coworkers feel unsafe. Likewise, a workplace that shames or ignores difficulties with substance use may discourage individuals from seeking help for an addiction.

4. Navigating the intersection of mental health challenges and productivity

It won’t surprise you to learn that mental health distress can cause a dip in employee productivity. As an employer, you have two priorities: promoting employee well-being, and supporting your business objectives.

It’s hard to promote productivity without addressing the root causes of your employees’ performance challenges. For example, if someone who is dealing with depression is struggling to complete work, just drafting a plan to help them finish work faster may not help. If, on the other hand, you provide support and resources to help them address their depression by referring the employee to appropriate mental health services, they’ll be more likely to get the help they need to resolve the underlying problems that affect their productivity and engagement at work.

“It’s important to address these issues in sequence,” says Grasso. “First, check in on an employee’s signs of distress by noting the concrete behaviors or statements that led you to become concerned, and express that concern in regards to their wellbeing. After this initial step, coupled with follow-up to provide connections to the appropriate resources, one can address work performance issues in a separate conversation.” These resources might include mental health services available through your EAP or health plan, information about other options, or flexible or reduced hours to provide time for treatment.

Tackling mental health and productivity concerns in the right order ensures that you, as an HR leader or manager, are being sensitive to your employee’s personal needs while also maintaining your responsibility to your team and workplace.

LEARN MORE by downloading our report on severe workplace mental health challenges in the workplace, and what employers can do to prevent them.

CONTACT US

If you’d like help connecting with a therapist or mental health coach, Lyra can assist you. You can get started today if Lyra is offered by your employer. Sign up now.

If you’re a mental health professional and want to explore joining the Lyra network, learn more about how we work with providers and apply today.

And check in frequently here or follow us on FacebookLinkedIn, and Twitter for more insights into optimal well-being.

DISCLAIMER:

The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Rachel Heston-Davis is a freelance content writer and former journalist. Her work has appeared in publications such as Business Insider, Everyday Health Group, VacationistUsa.com, and Light & Life Magazine. Areas of interest include mental health, nonprofits, travel, and higher ed. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Lesley University.