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Reducing Anxiety: Employee Mental Health Support Critical to Wellness and Retention

Oct 04, 2022
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Employees are struggling right now. Even after the most painful effects of the pandemic resulting from lockdowns, social isolation and fear have abated, incidences of depression, burnout and anxiety have risen markedly. The rising cost of living has added even more strain as employees grapple with balancing household budgets amid demanding workloads—and for remote workers—struggling to set boundaries as the lines blur between long hours of work and enjoying life at home.

In late September, the United States Preventative Services Task Force issued draft guidance recommending for the first time that all adults under the age of 65 should be screened for anxiety disorders. That guidance follows findings this summer from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Household Pulse Survey that 28.3% of Americans reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, up from 10.8% recorded in the 2019 National Health Interview Survey, which serves as a pre-pandemic benchmark. According to the Household Pulse Survey, this summer 30.2% of Maine residents reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, down just 4% since the stressful onset of COVID-19 in April 2020, when 34.3% of Mainers reported such symptoms.

When it comes to the workplace, 76% of full-time workers have reported having at least one symptom of a mental health condition, according to Mind Share Partners’ 2021 Mental Health at Work Report. That’s a 16% jump from before the pandemic as reported in Mind Share’s 2019 report.

“Anxiety about finances is a big driver right now,” says Jacquelyn Hedlund, M.D., senior medical director for Community Health Options. “Consequently, one of most difficult challenges for small group employers is dealing with the manifestations of chronic anxiety over financial concerns magnified by the pandemic. Anxiety manifests as absenteeism, poor productivity and inattentiveness at work. Not only do we see anxiety with our Members, but we see it with our co-workers, as well as with friends and family. Most may not even be aware that what they are feeling is anxiety. That’s how insidious it is.”

When workers experience financial anxiety, the stress not only impacts mental health, but can take a physical toll as well.

“Chronic stress, which has been exacerbated worldwide by the lingering COVID pandemic, has been strongly linked to cardiovascular disease,” according to an abstract published by the National Institutes of Health. “High levels of work or occupational stress have been convincingly linked to a greater risk for hypertension and cardiovascular mortality.”

Employees want to feel good about themselves at work. Feeling unsupported by their employers, millions of employees have taken matters into their own hands and quit their jobs. Some have retired early, while others found new jobs with more support for the health and wellness challenges they face—often at small businesses.

Providing mental health support and resources may give a competitive advantage to small group employers who rise to meet employees’ needs. More than 90% of respondents to the Mind Share Partners’ study said that a company’s culture should support a mentally healthy workplace. And employees who feel supported at work say they are 2½ times more likely to stay at their company for two or more years.

  • Talk with employees, be upfront and transparent about the challenges we all face as human beings. Acknowledge that it has been a challenging couple of years and make them aware of the resources you offer through your employer-sponsored health plan.
  • Frequently share details about available resources. It’s not enough to share information at an annual company meeting or during the onboarding process. People need to be reminded repeatedly as a group and in one-on-one conversations. Show compassion and concern for their health and wellbeing and, if necessary, give employees the flexibility to attend counseling sessions during work hours.
  • Learn to recognize and react to burnout. Remember to do a quick check-in before group and one-on-one meetings, keeping watch for feelings of fatigue, loss of energy, dissatisfaction with work or feelings of worthlessness within your team.
  • Be mindful of the whole-body connection. A healthy mind and body go hand-in-hand. Encourage walking meetings when possible or a walk with co-workers during lunch.
  • Consider sponsoring a health and wellness challenge that encourages people to interact, exercise and improve their overall health and wellbeing as a team.
  • Find opportunities to connect socially with company-sponsored in-person events if your team works remotely, especially during this age of back-to-back Zoom meetings and virtual co-workers.
  • Ask about work-life balance in one-on-one meetings, and encourage people to take breaks throughout the workday, set boundaries or explore a hobby, rather than expecting them to be heads down and working all the time. Ensure that managers model that behavior themselves so team members feel comfortable taking a breather.
  • Ensure employees understand and know how to access specific mental health benefits available to them. Importantly, work with your insurer or broker to offer plans that prioritize mental and emotional wellbeing as much as physical health, including providing wellness options beyond specific healthcare services offered by providers. Community Health Options’ plans, for example, cover a medical and behavioral health visit on the same day to make it easier for people to get help when and where they need it, along with offering a platform with robust wellness benefits that help people to stay on target with their personal goals.

The bottom line is that employers can openly accept that everyone experiences challenges from time to time. Acknowledging that an employee is going through a tough time and encouraging the use of available resources goes a long way toward reducing the stigma associated with mental health conditions. And allowing employees to take care of themselves—ultimately so they can bring their best selves to work—gives businesses a competitive edge with teams excited about doing excellent work

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Last month, Health Options began filing 2023 individual and small group plan rates. As part of this process, carriers are required to send individual subscribers a letter detailing upcoming rate changes.