Beyond coping to thriving: Employee mental health is a priority

Because of COVID-19, life’s routines and expectations have undergone a seismic shift. Last year, the pandemic obliged many thousands of employees to become homeworkers. Now, office doors are once again opening and vaccines are becoming more widely available. But it’s safe to say stress is not abating because of a return to the workplace. It falls to responsive organisations to help employees not only cope but thrive — wherever they find themselves in the coming months.

COVID-19 has blurred lines in the work world. Some employees who were once used to going into an office every day are still homeworking or engaged in a hybrid version of it. Other employees feel anxiety about resuming ‘normal’ routines alongside the overall uncertainty about whether these routines will even last.

Your employees are contending with monumental concerns and daily minutiae in equal measure, all against the backdrop of a pandemic that has lasted more than a year. In short, employees may be more stressed and anxious than pre-COVID-19.

Stress and strain: by the numbers

The strain caused by COVID-19 on employees’ mental health is marked. Although employees may now be back to the workplace, these numbers reveal a high level of stress that we cannot expect to ease simply because of a return to the office:

  • As of the beginning of 2021, 40% of adults worldwide declared that the last six months had a negative impact on their mental wellbeing.1
  • 54% of workers reporting feeling more emotionally exhausted since the COVID-19 outbreak.2
  • More than half of working adults say they experienced increased anxiety around job security and increases stress due to changes in work routines and organisation.3
  • Globally, employees reported higher worry, stress and sadness in 2020 than in previous years.4
  • One in five individuals report experiencing substantial or high financial distress related to the COVID-19 pandemic.5

Even before COVID-19, there was still stress to address

Pre-COVID-19, there were clearly issues that wellbeing programmes were seeking to address among the general employee population. An analysis of the workplace found that mental health problems accounted for 55% of all days lost at work in Great Britain.6 The World Health Organization estimates the global economy loses about US $1 trillion per year in productivity due to depression and anxiety.7

COVID-19 has contributed to a decline in emotional health. Nearly 30% of employees feel their mental health has worsened as a result of the pandemic, and 36% of employees reported experiencing anxiety or depression in the last year.8 That may explain why employee assistance programmes (EAPs) remain a popular wellness programme that organisations employ.

In this time of ongoing uncertainty, employees are understandably afraid and frustrated. They are looking for strong guidance and fact-based leadership. It’s imperative that workers also feel a sense of safety. If not, stress and exhaustion will follow.

Develop solutions that move beyond coping towards thriving

The COVID-19 crisis demanded that alternative solutions be created virtually overnight. Now, as HR leaders help guide their organisations out of that earlier crisis mode, you can assess the new behaviours that were adopted to assist workers in combating stress — and discern which ones should endure as more sustainable processes. You can then strengthen the pillar of mental health by adding these behaviours as well:

  • Keep the dialogue open and track employee concerns. Share updates about levels of risk in the markets where you do business. The pandemic crisis continues to vary by geography.
  • Create one communication hub for all crisis-related information.
  • Inquire if your current benefit provider offers onsite counsellors for employees back at the worksite.
  • Encourage employees to access support through virtual channels.
  • Enhance your mental wellbeing offerings during peak times of change.
  • Train managers about the resources available and how to promote and implement them.
  • Explore management consultations and critical incidence support services through your EAP provider.

Connect employees to wellbeing programmes that work

The scale of employees’ mental wellbeing problems cannot be underestimated. The concerns were there before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has added a deep layer of stress resulting from change, disruption and worries over the future.

Now is the time to make employee engagement the priority and build — or rebuild, as the case may be — wellness programmes that employees want to connect to. These programmes are holistic, personalised and relevant to multigenerational needs, all while striking the delicate balance of aligning to your organisation’s vision and operational requirements.

It can be done. You’ve already proven you can act quickly and nimbly and can be prepared to revisit decisions. And when things go wrong, you’re prepared to recover quickly and devise a better strategy. Once you’re sure that the wellbeing programmes you put in place fit your organisation’s business needs, you can be confident you’re creating a healthy, agile and thriving workforce now and in the future.

The right partner can make all the difference.

See how Optum can help.

About the Author

Eileen K. Meehan, Vice President, Global EAP, Wellbeing, and Worklife Services

Eileen Meehan leads the Optum Global EAP and Wellbeing business, serving over 20 million members and delivering care in more than 150 countries. In this role, Eileen is responsible for ensuring all members receive high-quality, compassionate care that improves quality of life and delivers measurable results. Eileen is leading the transformation of the EAP business into a vital emotional wellbeing service that navigates the entire emotional health continuum and improves outcomes for members. Eileen brings with her extensive experience in the health and wellbeing space over the last 20 years. She earned her MBA from the University of Chicago and her B.S. from the State University of New York at Binghamton. Eileen resides in Barrington, Rhode Island, with her husband and three children.

1. Statista. Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Mental Health Worldwide. Accessed 1 July 2021.
2. Ibid.
3. World Economic Forum. World Economic Forum- Ipsos survey. Anxiety, stress and loneliness: COVID’s toll on the lives of workers. Accessed 7 July 2021.
4. Gallup. State of the Global Workplace 2021 Report. Accessed 17 June 2021.
5. Kilian C, Rehm J, Allebeck P, et al. Alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe: a large-scale cross-sectional study in 21 countries. Addiction. 2021 Jun 9. doi: 10.1111/add.15530.
6. Health and Safety Executive. Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain, 2020. 4 November 2020. Accessed 14 June 2021.
7. WHO. World Mental Health Day 2020: the campaign. Accessed 14 June 2021.
8. Willis Towers Watson. 2020 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey. 5 February 2021. Accessed 14 June 2021.

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