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After a hard 18 months of pandemic, your workers need care. Here’s how to help

More than a third of Americans suffer from anxiety, depression or both, according to a recent pulse survey conducted by the Census Bureau in conjunction with the CDC. With the protraction of the Covid-19 pandemic and an increasing political divide, these symptoms are only getting worse. A recent CDC study published in the Journal of American Health conducted during the pandemic found that the number reporting symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder has grown by 17%, while those on medication or in counseling for these disorders grew by 14%. Meanwhile, those self-reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression has grown by 19% and 20% respectively. And mental health benefit provider Lyra Health reports that the number of those dealing with acute mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression doubled between the beginning and end of 2020.

This rise in anxiety and depression brings with it an explosion in cost. Some 48% of the Lyra sample agreed that mental health issues had impacted their work negatively. A whitepaper from the World Health Organization estimates the annual cost of anxiety and depression, in terms of lost productivity alone, at $1 trillion. What’s more, employees at a high risk of anxiety and depression have higher overall healthcare costs and are more likely to be involved in workplace accidents. These higher costs are more likely to be borne disproportionately by small and medium enterprises which are typically less equipped to deal with associate wellness issues than their larger, corporate counterparts. And because many of those with anxiety and depression never say a word, it’s a problem that continues unabated.

According to the CDC, of those who suffer from moderate or severe depression, just 57% and 40% respectively ever ask for help. In many cases, it’s not for a lack of wanting to. It’s because the stigmas around mental health issues which still exist in many workplaces discourage people from being open about their struggles. So when they miss work due to anxiety or depression or underperform on the job – depression interferes with physical tasks 20% of the time and cognitive work at a rate 15% higher than that (CDC) – they blame headaches, stomach cramps or other illnesses. Many, too, are afraid of losing their jobs or being demoted if they disclose the truth. Still more worry about the negative connotations associated with seeking help. In fact, in their inaugural Mental Health at Work report from non-profit mental health training and advising leader, Mindshare Partners, 80% of those surveyed said that shame and embarrassment prevent them from seeking help. And the team at Lyra found that 45% of those in their survey who reported seeking help for mental health issues had paid out of pocket rather than deal with negative stereotypes, lack of understanding or having to navigate associated complexities. But if the Great Resignation has taught us anything, it’s that workers want to talk about mental health, and they want to work for employers that make it OK to do so.

The vast majority of especially younger workers are looking for employers who not only talk openly about mental health concerns but who provide access to mental health treatment and other services when needed. These workers watched as their parents spent decades in toxic cultures, suffering in silence with no mental health support and little to show for their dedication, and are deciding that they want something different and better. In their State of Mind Trend Report  expert on all things Millennial, YPulse, found that 75% of employed Millennials, those born between 1981 and 1996, want mental health support from their employers. Lyra, similarly reported that 91% of Zs, 83% of Millennials and 80% of Gen Xers say mental health benefits are at least somewhat important when considering an employer. For many, it’s more than just a nice to have. 28% of the YPulse sample said that this support would make them more likely to take a job. Meanwhile, Mindshare found that 50% of Millennials and 75% of Gen Zs (born 1997 to 2002), respectively, had left roles due to mental health issues. It’s because most employers avoid mental health discussions entirely, provide substandard benefits and support or unwittingly or otherwise create cultures that actually make anxiety and depression worse rather than better.

Lyra actually found that just half of the HR leaders polled in its survey felt that the mental health support provided by their organizations was adequate. If half of the world won’t provide adequate care, employees will seek out the other half. It’s what’s driving the Great Resignation.

In their just published report, The Great Resignation Update: Limeade Employee Care Report, the folks at employee experience software provider Limeade found that associates who had made a job change during the Great Resignation reported a 42% total swing in Comfort in disclosing a mental health condition. Workers are clearly leaving jobs in search of improved mental health outcomes at work. Nearly all these young workers view their mental health as just as important as their physical health. And they are consciously aware of, and willing to invest in, their own wellbeing.

87% of them, according to YPulse often need time to clear their heads, and they do. 75% of Millennials and 54% of Zs put aside time to de-stress. The vast majority of these workers see a causative effect between mental health and happiness and believe that focusing on health and wellness causes them to feel more in control of their lives. They regularly research health and wellness topics and spend a fortune each year on self-care – an estimated $158 billion per year according to YPulse.

Employers that clue into these trends and both encourage as well as help to subsidize them will ultimately prevail over those who continue to treat topics like anxiety and depression as third rails or worse as symptoms of weakness or a lack of gumption as has been the prevailing view of many old-school managers. It’s a topic that, given the trends noted above, is not going away. When asked by YPulse to agree or disagree with the following statement: “I want to live in a world where people talk openly about their mental health,” a whopping 83% agreed. The choice for today’s small business is to be a part of that conversation or not. The good news is that it doesn’t take a tremendous amount of effort to be better than almost everybody else.

Here are 10 simple steps to make your organization a better place to work for associates dealing with anxiety and depression disorders:

Talk openly about mental health and share your own stories. Make mental health a regular topic of discussion from the leadership level. If you or other members of your leadership team have ever struggled with anxiety or depression, talk about it. Make it OK for people to have anxiety and depression and to talk about it openly. Encourage people to seek treatment. Deal swiftly with any negative or derisive comments.

Be utterly transparent. Another reason people become anxious and depressed at work is a lack of understanding about the future. When people become worried about what’s coming, they become anxious and depressed. Talk frequently about the results and strategy of your business. Be open about ups AND downs. Help people understand what’s needed from them in order for the business to do well. Just don’t keep them in the dark.

Destigmatize mental health while creating a more caring culture. Have you created a culture where accountability and caring are equally valued? How do your leaders talk about those with anxiety and depression? Are your leaders stewards or autocratic narcissists? If you don’t like the answer to these and similar questions, get to work. From Limeade’s Great Resignation report, “By intentionally cultivating a culture that cares, you can give your employees a better experience at work and achieve greater commitment, higher engagement and improved wellbeing.” Today’s workers, particularly those with anxiety and depression, want to work in such cultures. The Great Resignation has proved that they will walk until they find them.

Assure them that no one is getting fired. One of the top reasons associates stay quiet about anxiety and depression issues is a fear of being fired. Make sure all your associates know that these and other mental health issues are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and that no one is getting fired for being sick.

Meditate on it. Studies have shown that the three keys to better mental health are exercise, meditation and reading. Whether by sponsoring access to a popular meditation app, attendance at meditation classes or simply encouraging the act by associates on their own, try meditation as an avenue to better mental health. When individuals meditate more, they have fewer anxiety and depression issues.

Give them a break. Whether workers are on-site or remote, recognize that workers are their best when they have regular opportunities to walk away from their work to decompress. Give them opportunities to take a walk, read, meditate, or play – on your dime – when they need a rest. The result will be better adjusted and more productive workers.

Offer best in class mental health coverage, including an EAP. This is self-explanatory. Work with your benefits provider to access the best available mental health and employee assistance coverage available. Increasingly, this is a benefit that associates are basing the choice of one employer over another on.

Regularly take their temperature. Consider quarterly or monthly associate engagement surveys to measure the level of stress and other mental health triggers among your associate body. Then, take swift action on those areas your team identifies for improvement.

Go back to go forward on remote work. One of the single biggest contributors to anxiety and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic has been flawed execution of remote work programs. Most employers sent workers home with zero communication for what to expect and worse, with no training for managers for how to lead in a remote work environment. What followed were people, many who were ill-equipped to lead in the first place, guessing, mostly wrongly, about how to lead people who were not in front of them every day. The net result was micromanagement, suspicion and unnecessary displays of temper and authority. Smart organizations will be those who better equip workers and leaders to thrive in this brave new remote and hybrid world.

Encourage overall wellness and self-care. Invest in programs and benefits aimed at helping your associates feel better, eat better, and look better, including allowances for self-care. Fitness, sleep and appearance are directly connected to mental health. As each improves, so go the others.

Both the need for and benefits that accrue from a greater focus on issues related to anxiety, depression and other mental health issues should by now, be undeniable. According to Jessi Crast, PhD, Researcher at the Limeade Institute, “There is no question that the past 18 months have taken a toll on everyone’s mental health, and in this current work environment, it can be difficult to separate those challenges from your work mindset. Employers who want to retain today’s employees must understand that PTSD, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues continue to rise.

The need for meaningful, comprehensive mental health resources and policies is greater than ever. Employers need to re-evaluate mental health in the pandemic-altered workplace in order to support employees.” Like most else in life and business, whether or not to do so is a choice. Organizations that rise to the occasion will reap extraordinary rewards, becoming magnets for an increasing number of workers who recognize that their mental health does not mean they are broken or any less worthy of love.