After more than a year of pandemic-driven lockdowns, life is starting to get back to normal. Families are gathering, events are being scheduled, and employees are returning to the office.
But even as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) relaxes guidelines on gatherings and mask-wearing for fully vaccinated people, the disruptions created by the pandemic could last even longer than the virus itself. What people have been through will take time to recover from, especially when it comes to mental health.
A March 2021 survey conducted by Pew Research found that 45% of US adults are experiencing medium or high levels of psychological distress in the wake of the pandemic. This figure is down just a few percentage points from March 2020, when COVID-19 was spreading rapidly across the country.
Managing high levels of stress for more than a year is taking its toll on Americans’ mental health. And employers are in a unique position to help alleviate some of this pain.
Understanding the mental health risks and realities employees are facing can help you identify new opportunities to provide relief and support. Here are five key lessons to help empower your people in the aftermath of the pandemic.
1. Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint
The anxiety, isolation, and post-traumatic stress of the pandemic won’t fade quickly. And while returning to the workplace and enjoying social activities come with plenty of mental health benefits, the stress of change can be a lot to manage. As people return to their pre-pandemic habits — or try to create new routines — they will need time and space to process what they’ve been through.
For the near future, employers should encourage employees to take care of themselves and their families. That includes sharing resources about the symptoms of pandemic PTSD and related coping skills and listening when employees open up about their struggle.
“As employers, we have an obligation to provide our teammates with opportunities to talk openly about their mental health and to secure the support they or their families may need,” Sheri Bronstein, chief human resources officer at Bank of America, shared with the World Economic Forum.
For employees, frequent touchpoints that communicate the digital health and well-being tools that are available to them may be just as important six months from now as they are today. The same is true for understanding how your teams are faring: Executives in industries as diverse as finance and energy have pointed to the importance of employee surveys — and specifically getting a read on mental well-being — as vital to a post-pandemic workplace.
2. Mental health and physical health go hand in hand
Stress takes a toll on a body, and COVID-19 certainly left its mark. In July 2020, roughly one in three Americans said pandemic-related worries led to problems with their sleep (36%) or poor appetite or overeating (32%), according to research conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF). 12% increased their alcohol or drug use, and another 12% experienced worsened chronic health conditions.
Alone, stress can increase the odds an individual will have a heart attack or stroke or develop Type 2 diabetes. And when it’s combined with poor sleep and increased substance use, the implications for a person’s overall health can be very serious.
That’s why proper preventive care that extends beyond the boundaries of the doctor’s office is so important. Employers can help by supporting employee wellness. Giving employees the information that can help them develop a healthy diet or adopt more healthy routines at home is key to promoting mental health — and a happier, more productive workforce.
3. Equity is essential
Genetics and personal choice play a large part in defining a person’s health. But social factors, including gender and racial identity, also influence physical and mental health.
The 2020 KFF study offered some evidence into how the pandemic has impacted different identity groups. On average, 53% of Americans say COVID-related stress has had a negative impact on their mental health. But that figure jumps to 68% for Black Americans and drops to 51% for white and Hispanic individuals. And more women (57%) have felt a decline in their mental health than men (50%).
Employers can improve health equity within their ranks by tailoring resources and outreach efforts to make sure everyone understands their benefits and how to use them. Health risk assessments, biometric screenings, and health and wellness programs are just a few of the benefits companies can offer and promote to help all their employees attain their full health potential.
4. Part-time employees get lost in the shuffle
Part-time employees are often left without health care benefits, but they need mental health support as much as anyone else.
COVID-19 exacerbated this issue. Some who would have preferred full-time positions were forced into part-time roles — often more than one — because of the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. Others opted for part-time work because they needed to care for family members.
Juggling multiple jobs and family priorities adds pressure to an already difficult situation. That’s why many employers expand health and wellness programs to part-time employees. This benefit can also help companies recruit better talent and boost loyalty with their part-time staff.
5. Income is a major source of stress
The pandemic hit a lot of families hard economically. Whether they lost their job, took time off of work because of illness, or lost a loved one to COVID-19, millions of Americans had to tighten their monthly budgets during the pandemic.
Financial hardship can be completely overwhelming to a family that is already struggling. The KFF study found that 71% of those who had difficulty affording household expenses because of COVID felt that pandemic-related stress had negatively impacted their mental health.
Employers can help employees cope with this type of stress by providing an employee assistance program (EAP) that is easy to access. These confidential services offer support for a variety of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, grief, addiction, and eating disorders. Wellness and financial coaching can also give employees the tools they need to succeed in a crisis.
The pandemic may cast a long shadow on workplace mental health, and employers mustn’t shy away from proactively addressing those challenges. Rather than a set-it-and-forget-it approach, consider a responsive strategy that evolves alongside your employees’ needs.