Digital Tools Can Help Workers Deal with Pandemic-Related Stress

Interest grows for mindfulness apps, online chats

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek May 14, 2021

​The uppercut of the pandemic sent many organizations and their workers reeling last year. Individuals were emotionally sagging against the ropes and mentally drained as anxiety over job loss or reduced work, increased caregiving responsibilities, social isolation, and worry over loved ones on the frontlines of the pandemic took its toll.

The number of cases of anxiety in the U.S. tripled as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, according to a Boston University study, and the demand for mental health and addiction services grew in 2020, the National Council for Mental Wellbeing reported.

With that in mind, employers "are rushing to support their employees through these tough times," said Kristian Ranta, CEO and founder of Meru Health, based in San Mateo, Calif.

It surveyed 1,321 U.S. employees March 30-31, 2021, and discovered a growing interest in digital forms of assistance—mindfulness apps, prerecorded videos, and talking with a counselor via texts or online chats.

Thirty percent of workers, it found, prefer chatting daily online or via text about a problem, and 24 percent like digital assistance over in-person help.

"As the need for mental health assistance ballooned during COVID-19, so did demand from employers for digital mental health assistance options," Ranta said in a statement announcing the findings.

Men and workers ages 30 to 44 years old, in particular, prefer digital assistance. Overall, respondents who prefer digital assistance liked talking about a problem in the moment rather than waiting to do so at a scheduled session, he explained.

The two main things employees want in their mental health benefits, Meru Health found, were full cost coverage and quick access to care.

Half of respondents overall said cost deterred them from seeking help, even when they thought they needed help. Twenty-four percent overall who had access to employer-provided assistance were reluctant to seek help because they were worried about confidentiality or the stigma associated with mental health issues.

"It takes time for people to be ready for help," Ranta told SHRM Online. "If you break a bone, you'll talk to a doctor [right away], but no one ever dies because of broken bones. But … a lot of people die because of depression or suicide. It's not considered as urgent to get the help." 

SHRM Resource Hub Page
Mental Health

Stress can cause the following, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Feelings of fear, anger, sadness, worry, numbness or frustration.
  • Changes in appetite, energy, desires and interests.
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions.
  • Difficulty sleeping or nightmares.
  • Physical reactions, such as headaches, body pains, stomach problems and skin rashes.
  • Worsening of chronic health problems, especially as people delay seeking medical help.
  • Worsening of mental health conditions.
  • Increased use of tobaccoalcohol and other substances.

"Now more than ever, employers must be alert and look for signs that may indicate employees are hurting and take concrete actions to help them as we start returning to work."
Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, SHRM president and CEO

A national study of 2,000 employed adults that Travelers insurance company conducted in March found that most workers (84 percent) have demonstrated resilience, and that there is a correlation between employer-provided resources and workers' mental health:

  • 30 percent of those who said their employer provides more than enough mental health resources said their ability to manage stress improved.
  • 42 percent of workers who didn't think their employer provided enough mental health support said their ability to manage stress worsened during the pandemic.

New research from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) also found that the pandemic is taking a psychological toll on U.S. workers, who are mentally and physically exhausted at the end of the workday and experiencing symptoms of depression.

This "is a public health crisis, an economic crisis and a mental health crisis," said Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, SHRM president and CEO.

"Now more than ever, employers must be alert and look for signs that may indicate employees are hurting and take concrete actions to help them as we start returning to work." 

Some organizations, such as Walmart, are doing just that. Walmart expanded its employee benefits in May from three free counseling sessions per concern to 10 sessions with a Resources for Living licensed professional. Counseling can cover a wide range of concerns: anxiety, coping with change, depression, family conflict, grief, parenting, personal and professional relationships, and stress. Sessions also are available to members of employees' households, including dependent children up to age 26.

Ranta envisions a time when getting help for mental health issues is as easy and stigma-free as it is for any health issue.

"To get there, employers need to ensure all employees are aware of their mental health benefits, and that employees know that such programs are completely confidential and that there is no shame in asking for help."



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