COVID-19 is Changing the Conversation About Mental Health

Brokers (and Their Clients) Should Listen

By Paula Allen

Before COVID-19 changed the world in early 2020, mental health concerns among U.S. employees were already nearing crisis levels. In California, for instance, a federal survey released in 2019 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that more than 1.1 million adults from the Golden State reported a serious mental illness during the previous year.

While the need for mental health support existed long before the pandemic started, it is now clear that the global health catastrophe comes with valuable lessons that brokers can take to their clients. First, creating a new elevated standard of care directed at proactive mental wellness is a prudent strategy for employers. Second, as benefits experts, brokers are their clients’ allies who stand ready to advance their organizations forward.

LESSONS FROM A PANDEMIC

Crises often become the unintended touchstones that help define whether organizations proceed down a path  of chaos and disintegration, or one of enlightenment and rejuvenation. Crises offer brokers a rare opportunity. The pandemic, for example, is a chance for brokers to lead clients in a direction that helps them carve a way through challenging circumstances, empowering them to become true partners in difficult times. In California especially, employers have a need to pay particular attention to their employees’ mental health, considering recent findings from a Kaiser Family Foundation survey in October 2020. Results of the study showed that California is one of the top five states in the nation with the highest percentage of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder (41.2%).

Crises often become the unintended touchstones that help define whether organizations proceed down a path  of chaos and disintegration, or one of enlightenment and rejuvenation.

By positioning their clients to better emerge from a crisis, brokers can help their clients address these troubling statistics while assuring a place for themselves as trusted consultants once we have collectively emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic.

A global health disaster isn’t what business leaders had in mind at the start of 2020. The phrase “unchartered territory” is an understatement when considering how employers had to adapt and reprioritize their strategies and plans that are shaping how they do business in 2021. Organizations that respond nimbly and realize that the health and wellbeing of their employees is at the very foundation of their success are the ones that will face future crises healthier and wealthier.

Studies continually reveal a significant return on investment in the form of increased productivity and worker wellbeing for organizations that support their employees’ mental health. In fact, after counseling, unproductive time decreased by 43% according to Workplace Outcome Suite Annual Report 2020.

None of that should be surprising. When it comes to the complex nature of mental health, understanding how to support your clients and their employees is a strategic skill that offers significant benefits immediately and long into the future.

Further, employers’ corporate cultures  increasingly face scrutiny from the outside world. Social media chatter and probing analysis to understand more about pandemic response, whether from the media or even sociologists and psychologists, have brought a heightened awareness of how employers are handling their employees’ wellbeing during the COVID-19 crisis. Among our own clients, we have seen that employers who lead with empathy and provide support and resources are not only perceived favorably, but they often benefit by having more engaged employees with better mental health.

By positioning their clients to better emerge from a crisis, brokers can help their clients address these troubling statistics while assuring a place for themselves as trusted consultants once we have collectively emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic.

SUPPORTING YOUR CLIENTS

No conversation about mental health in the workplace is complete without discussing stigma. While there are more conversations today than ever before about how to help organizations reduce stigma related to mental health, brokers still need to offer their clients encouragement on how to do more. Morneau Shepell initiated a monthly Mental Health Index (MHI)™  which offers a better understanding of the mental health status of employees nationwide to help employers strengthen support for their own employees.

Uncovered through months of survey data from 5,000 Americans, the MHI reveals that employees who work for employers that actively support mental wellbeing have better mental health scores overall than those who said they received poor or inconsistent employer mental health support. Other trends indicate that most recently, finances and isolation were the strongest drivers of mental health concerns — something the pandemic exacerbated.

As organizations continue to focus on persisting through the effects of the pandemic and how to build resilience to address social and economic disruption, here are seven key actions that brokers can undertake to help their clients:

  1. Advocate for frequent mental health communications. Ensure your clients understand that the pandemic has increased mental health risks for all, especially those who were already susceptible. Open and non-judgmental communication helps remove stigma and builds awareness that maintaining good mental health is a necessity for everyone.
  2. Remind clients that the right tools can help reduce mental health stigma. Proactive employee assistance programs (EAPs) that take full advantage of today’s technologies offer employees a more consistent support approach, while also normalizing the conversation about mental health in order to decrease stigma. Brokers can help clients choose a program that integrates best-in-class behavioral health expertise with scalable access through smartphone apps, for example, as a way to support every employee’s health and wellbeing.
  3. Train and educate managers. When it comes to helping clients better promote mental health in the workplace, remind them of their existing resources. EAP and behavioral health programs are often the best place to turn to for management training programs. By starting with existing partners, your clients not only have access to expert advice, but they also save time and effort by fully leveraging their investment in these at-hand resources.
  4. Expand your clients’ idea of wellbeing support. Mental health is only one aspect of an employee’s total wellbeing. Things like financial wellbeing are inextricably linked to mental health and shouldn’t be overlooked. The pandemic has had far-reaching effects that have threatened employees’ livelihoods as organizations were forced to make unforeseen budget cuts. A UCLA survey of more than 5,000 California adults in May of 2020 found that nearly 18% of respondents said their job hours and income had been reduced, and more than 11% said they were experiencing significant financial struggles.
  5. Remind clients to listen to their teams. Consider helping clients create a survey of their employee populations to determine challenges unique to their workforce. As working from home has become the norm for many, isolation is a primary concern in depleting resilience and destabilizing individuals’ healthy wellbeing. As a result, the comforts of routine and social connections that once provided stability pre-pandemic are out of reach for many. This only increases the likelihood of mental health challenges that, left unaddressed, can have long-term effects.
  6. Focus additional attention where needed. Employers need to be cognizant that some employees may be more at risk of mental health issues than others. Parents now have the added pressures of home-schooling tacked on to their workdays. Other groups, like lower-paid employees, likely have fewer financial resources for support. Non-white employees have historically experienced racial inequities that further contribute to sources of anxiety, especially amid the pandemic. Suggest employers hold listening sessions and/  or educational workshops that demonstrate their concern for total wellbeing.
  7. Stress consistency in their efforts. The long, contentious U.S. presidential election cycle, increasing factions of non-tolerance of differing opinions, and a constant stream of inflammatory news are some of the outside forces that have added to the emotional toll of the pandemic. Even before the 2020 election, the MHI revealed that there was a loss of hopefulness in the population as 43% of Americans reported that “the upcoming election had negatively impacted their mental health.” Now with the election over, 46% of respondents reported continued feelings of negativity. Regardless of future pandemics or elections, a broker’s role in supporting consistent resilience- building efforts will continue to be important in helping employees manage the unavoidable strains of future societal or personal challenges that can jeopardize the health of organizations.

GOING FORWARD

The COVID-19 pandemic shifted our collective focus in 2020. Yet, 2021 holds promise by offering a different perspective that flips the negatives of the pandemic upside down. Helping clients reframe the conversation on mental health and total wellbeing with new insights that cultivate more productive and engaged workplaces can ultimately strengthen their business culture and productivity, along with their most valuable assets, their people.

The best organizations will say they learned something from the COVID-19 global pandemic. From smarter use of technology, to increasing flexibility with how their people work, to understanding the value of investing in mental health, the crises of today will have better prepared them with a resilient workplace culture that shapes how they prepare for future challenges.

PAULA ALLEN is SVP and global leader, research and total wellbeing for Morneau Shepell, where she manages the continuum of integrated analytics, predictive modelling and data-centric products and services that support the organization and its clients.

Allen has more than 20 years of experience relating to workplace research,  product  development and operational management that spans the range of EAP, attendance and disability management and health and benefits consulting. She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Toronto in psychological research and neuropsychological testing and clinicalintervention.