Supporting Mental Health in the Post-Pandemic Workplace

By Arlene S. Hirsch May 11, 2021
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Supporting Mental Health in the Post-Pandemic Workplace

​In many workplaces, there is still a stigma around discussing employee mental health conditions. Yet the pandemic has created an unexpected opportunity for more open and supportive conversations between HR, employees and senior leadership.

Michelle Tenzyk discovered that her willingness to speak openly about what it's like to be a high achiever living and working with severe depression has helped others to see her as a resource and to speak openly about their own experience.

"The pandemic has exacerbated mental health challenges, even for people who were on solid footing before," said Tenzyk, founder and CEO of East Tenth Group, a New York-based leadership and executive coaching firm, and board member of The Stability Network, an organization of people sharing their lived experience with mental health conditions. "Opening up about my lived experience gave permission to others to open up as well. 

"When leaders are willing to come forward and speak openly about their experience, it really helps bring down the walls," Tenzyk added.

At Influence & Co., a content marketing firm in Columbia, Mo., CEO Kelsey Raymond has been open with colleagues about seeing a therapist.  

"I think this has helped break down any stigma that may have been present around talking about mental health," she explained. "So if you have a personal experience that you're willing to speak openly about, that vulnerability can be really powerful to your team."

Workplace mental health includes leaders advocating resources and a healthy culture, as well as managers proactively creating a safe, supportive and sustainable environment, said Bernie Wong, manager of research and design at Mind Share Partners, a San Francisco nonprofit specializing in mental health training.

"When thinking about a broader mental health strategy, we encourage organizations to think comprehensively about how mental health shows up and can be supported throughout the organization," Wong said.

At Influence & Co., the firm shares its written mental health philosophy with all employees. "I thought that if we created a documented mental health policy for our team members, it could be a way to open up the conversation and show them the support they deserve to receive from their employer," Raymond said.

The process was led by HR director Courtney Mudd, who consulted with mental health experts, benefits specialists, lawyers and senior leaders to guide her through the process. Major elements include:

  • Acknowledgment. "The first goal of our policy was simply to let the team know that it is OK to disclose a mental illness at work (or not disclose) and to ask for help," Raymond said.
  • Offerings. An explanation of benefits ensures that employees know what resources are available to them.
  • Accommodations. The policy also details how employees can ask for reasonable accommodations for a mental health condition and explains that their information will be kept confidential.

During the pandemic, the team tweaked the policy to address the unique challenges that many employees were facing, said Raymond. This included a clarification of each team member's role; reminders to take paid time off for mental health; and the addition of voluntary virtual mental health workshops, virtual yoga classes and extended summer hours.

"It's been a positive impact on our company culture because it's just one more thing that shows our team members that we care about them as whole people. It's also helped make discussion around mental health more standard in the workplace," Raymond said.

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Mental Health

Rethinking the Role of EAPs

"Now more than ever, companies need to provide employees with access to convenient, quality and affordable mental health care to ensure workers are safe, healthy, happy and productive," said Stephen Etkind, a consultant with First Stop Health and a psychologist in private practice in Massachusetts. "These are stressful times. Half of Americans say their mental health has been affected by the pandemic. When you add racial injustices and a recession into the equation, a mental health crisis is imminent."

During the pandemic, many companies added or expanded employee assistance programs (EAPs) and services to help employees cope. That need is likely to continue for employees who are transitioning back into the office and for those who are continuing to work remotely.

"COVID has really changed the way people connect to mental health support," said Dave Pawlowski, senior vice president of operations for Curalinc Healthcare in Chicago. "The number of employees who called the EAP and wanted to speak to a licensed clinician immediately doubled during (and after) the beginning of the pandemic. They really just want in-the-moment clinical support, which is why it's so vital for any employer-sponsored mental health program to provide employees with around-the-clock access to licensed clinicians for immediate support."

Providing both in-person and virtual support also is critical at Lyra Health. "We see the pandemic driving both a rapid increase in the need for high-quality mental health care and for this care to be available in a format that aligns with social distancing requirements and preferences," said Joe Grasso, Lyra's clinical director of workforce mental health in Burlingame, Calif.

Lyra's data shows an 80 percent increase in members seeking care from March 2020 to early 2021. During that same period, they also saw a shift from nearly 50 percent virtual sessions to 98 percent virtual.

"One silver lining of the pandemic is that employers are prioritizing the mental health of their employees by looking critically at their benefits to ensure that resources are appropriately matching the need," Grasso said.

Curalinc also saw a significant rise in telehealth appointments during the pandemic, a trend that Pawlowski predicted is likely to continue. "Ultimately, what we're seeing is that a good portion of employees who tried video counseling or text therapy for the first time over the last 12 or 13 months are probably going to see it as a worthwhile treatment avenue," he said.

Beyond resources for employees, some EAPs consult with organizations on policies and services that are designed to mitigate risk and maximize the value of their workforce by taking a holistic approach to mental health services.

"Look for opportunities to refer or cross-refer to other programs," he said. For example, a wellness coach who is working with an employee on weight loss might suspect that the employee has an underlying eating disorder and subsequently refer them to a clinician in the EAP.

"The goal is not to diagnose anyone, but to create a framework so that people can recognize when a colleague or co-worker is in distress and connect them with the right resources," said Pawlowski.

To facilitate that process, Curalinc developed a Mental Health First Aid training module that teaches employees and supervisors how to recognize someone who is struggling, connect in a supportive way and guide them to the best resources.

 "One of the prevailing trends we're seeing now are investments in comprehensive mental health care benefits to help address increased anxiety and trauma," said Grasso. In addition to mental health resources, this might include child care and paid time off, commuter benefits for those who no longer feel comfortable with public transportation, and disability insurance to alleviate stress for employees who may need to take extended leave if job modifications aren't possible.

[Does your workplace support employee well-being? Take the quiz.]

Mental Health Employee Resource Groups

"When employees connect with others who have experienced a mental health condition, have a place to go for support and are armed with knowledge, they are set up to feel psychologically safe at work—a key to high performance and employee engagement," Wong said, describing the benefits of mental health employee resource groups (MHERGs). "They are an effective resource that reduces mental health-related stigma through an evidence-based model of social contact, peer support and education."

After Meredith Arthur was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder, she devoted herself to learning everything she could about the condition. But she had trouble relating to the stereotypical images of fearful and timid people who were portrayed in the literature.

"I knew that I wanted to figure out how to develop a mental health community within the workplace," said Arthur, who works as a content producer for Pinterest in San Francisco and is also the founder of a unique mental health wellness website called Beautiful Voyager.

In 2017 while working as a senior content marketing manager at the Zillow Group, she decided to start a MHERG. The group was housed under the umbrella of the existing disability ERG, which provided resources and served as an incubator. She partnered with Mind Share to leverage their resources and expertise. Arthur also pioneered the creation of the Pinside Out ERG at Pinterest last year. The group works closely with other ERGs, their EAP provider and career coaches, among others.

Wong believes that MHERGs should be open to the general population so that participating doesn't "out" someone as having a mental health condition and ensures that membership in the group doesn't violate any employee rights to privacy.

"The existence of a mental health ERG is good for everyone, even if not everyone chooses to participate," Wong said. "Simply noting the activities and conversations around mental health can begin to normalize mental health at work."

The pandemic has exposed a critical need for high quality, comprehensive mental health care that is not likely to disappear after we are through the worst of the pandemic, Grasso said. "This may just be the beginning of greater demand for mental health care and support in the workplace."

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