Employees are struggling with depression and anxiety, and some employers are stepping up to support them. HR professionals have learned a lot of lessons during the COVID-19 pandemic that they will carry forward as workplaces reopen and workers settle into new hybrid-work routines.
According to a May 2020 Willis Towers Watson report, 9 out of 10 global employees reported experiencing some level of anxiety and 7 in 10 reported being distracted at work due to COVID-19—and that was as the pandemic was just gathering speed. We didn't yet know how many spikes in cases, hospitalizations and deaths we would experience. At that time, the report also indicated, employees were pleased with how leaders were stepping up to help.
At the end of the year, evidence of pandemic-related stress surfaced in a December 2020 KFF.org report, when both remote and onsite employees said they were facing mental health issues such as burnout. According to the World Health Organization, burnout results from chronic workplace stress characterized by feelings of exhaustion or energy depletion, negative or cynical feelings related to a job, and reduced professional efficacy.
Learning to Let Go of Stress and Trauma
Laura Neinast, SHRM-CP, is the human resources manager for Burial Beer Co. in Asheville, N.C. The brewery industry is fast-paced, she said, and "the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench in our ability to operate in the capacity we needed. Burial was lucky enough that we never were slowed down too much. However, we had to shift a lot of the ways we operated to adjust to this new way of life that was thrown at us. Consistent unexpected changes and challenges put additional stress on staff throughout the company."
Neinast began her HR role at Burial Beer during the middle of the pandemic, when the owners made reducing stress a priority. After meeting with several possible training facilitators, Neinast contacted Franchon Francees, founder of Healing Your Almond and a licensed clinical mental health counselor. Healing Your Almond helps bring belonging, emotional intelligence and increased productivity into the workplace.
Neinast was specifically looking for someone who could relate to different personalities and personal preferences. Her goal was for employees to learn how to mitigate stress for themselves. She said this was important because, "after all, it is up to the employee to take the tools given to them and put them into action."
Neinast worked out an initial 90-minute live virtual training program for the staff. "Francees used an interactive approach which really connected with the employees—and she listened to everyone," Neinast said.
Francees told the workers about the almond-shaped cluster of nuclei located deep in the brain called the amygdala, which is responsible for identifying threats that trigger a flight, fight, freeze or fawn reaction.
"When we experience trauma—anything that makes us feel unsafe and powerless—our amygdala is activated, much like an alarm going off in a house," Francees said. "Once our brain identifies we are in danger, it enters survival mode and maintains only those functions crucial to survival." To heal from trauma, individuals need to turn off the alarm.
"That discussion really put stress in a new light for everyone," Neinast said. "There were certainly a lot of 'aha' moments."
She has scheduled a follow-up session in June and does not expect it to be the last. "Stress management is an ongoing effort in the workplace," she explained, "and refreshers are necessary to empower employees to continue to hold space for that necessary balance."
Recovering from Depression
Anthony Parnell is the site human resources leader for GE Aviation, which employs 500 individuals in heavy manufacturing—primarily the machining of disks and spools used in the core of jet engines. He is responsible for all people-related processes and activities at the site.
"We have an employee assistance program (EAP), just as many large employers offer," he said. "But a year or two ago, we recognized a need for a more direct and readily available outlet for employees to deal with all types of issues. The factors that guided us there stemmed from a couple occasions where employees unfortunately dealt with extreme depression and could not recover. I realized that there was no effective way to predict this. No crystal ball. But I started researching other potential options for our employees beyond EAP."
According to a brief issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mental illnesses such as depression are associated with higher rates of disability and unemployment. Depression interferes with a person's ability to complete physical job tasks about 20 percent of the time and reduces cognitive performance about 35 percent of the time. Yet only 57 percent of employees who report moderate depression and 40 percent of those who report severe depression receive treatment.
Also, a Gartner Inc. survey of more than 5,000 employees conducted in the fourth quarter of 2020 found that 29 percent considered themselves depressed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey also revealed that half (49 percent) of employees who reported that their organization offers a mental well-being program participated in it in 2020.
Parnell said he felt a personal drive to provide an effective outlet for GE Aviation's employees. Using Lean Six Sigma A3 methods, which call for rapid experimentation as part of the structured process for solving problems, Parnell aimed to identify and contract with a specific type of service provider. He, too, turned to Francees.
Parnell chose Healing Your Almond to provide both onsite and offsite counseling services to the team. The service is open to all GE Aviation employees based in Wilmington, N.C., at no cost to them. Francees is present at the manufacturing facility at varying times each week across all shifts. She connects with employees both on the production floor and individually by office hours.
Parnell said the employee participation rate was almost three times that of historic EAP participation rates within the first three months of offering the service.
"I've had employees thank me for making this available. And [company] leadership has benchmarked our efforts for possible application at other locations," he said.
"Most of us spend a lot of time at work," Francees said. "Clients like GE Aviation and Burial Beer are truly invested in providing the best for their people. Creating a healthy work environment is a team effort."
Beth A. Klahre is a freelance writer based in coastal North Carolina.