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Companies concerned about employees' mental health as workplaces reopen

Many employers have had mental health service benefits on the books, but now, they're stepping up those offerings by providing easier and more efficient access to them.

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Living in a perpetual state of disruption, uncertainty and grief can test anyone's mental health.

And events of the past 16 months have delivered all of those in spades thanks to a steady stream of horrors, including but hardly limited to the deadly pandemic, George Floyd's murder, the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection and attacks against Asian-Americans.

They've also catapulted employee mental health to the top of many employers' list of concerns and priorities.

"[Employers] understand the impact on mental health is going to have a long tail on it. Once you've gotten vaccinated, mental health issues don't go away. And once you're back in the workplace, mental health issues don't go away," said Sandra Kuhn, the national leader for the behavioral health practice at benefits consulting firm Mercer.

If there's any upside, it's that the taboo of talking about mental health at work has gone down. In a survey of 1,005 employees by The Hartford, a majority indicated their company's culture has been more accepting of mental health challenges in the past year.

"The stigma around mental health is rapidly decreasing. It's now a part of everyday conversation. So employers have more visibility into mental distress in their workforce," said Joe Grasso, senior director of workforce mental health at Lyra Health, which provides employees access to a network of mental health professionals and related resources.

Issues related to anxiety and depression are among the most common conditions that Lyra Health's practitioners are seeing in their sessions, Grasso said. And there has been an increase in employee searches for race-based trauma care, as well as requests for mental health providers of color, he noted.

While many employers have had mental health service benefits on the books, they are now stepping up those offerings by providing easier and more efficient access to them, doing more to educate employees about mental health, and training managers to communicate with their teams about the resources available, Kuhn said.

Employers are also offering education about alcohol and substance use disorders, she added. Many people have been drinking more as a way to cope with stress and there also has been increased drug consumption, with the highest annual number of opioid overdose deaths reported in 2020.

Mercer also has seen an increase in insurance claims for treatment of substance use disorders by their clients' employees and their families, Kuhn noted.

Here's how managers can approach mental health issues with their teams.

Recognize the signs

It's important for managers to have insight into what it means to feel anxious or depressed so they can best guide an employee to the resources that might help, Kuhn said.

Signs of distress include any changes in behavior, mood, productivity or engagement, according to Mercer. That might mean more absences, increased anger or irritation or having trouble concentrating.

Say the right thing

It's best to ask open-ended questions and then learn to listen closely for insights from the answers, Kuhn recommended.

Always point to an objective, observable behavior when opening a conversation, Grasso added. "I noticed you were crying after the meeting," or "I've noticed you've seemed really distracted lately."

And then be empathetic. "I got concerned. Is there anything I can do to be helpful?"

You then can inform that person about potentially helpful resources available to them.

"But don't become a therapist. Your job is not to treat someone, but to point the person to resources," Grasso noted.

Be proactive

While it's important to be responsive to a situation when it arises, it's equally important to be proactive about informing your team about the mental health resources that are available, Kuhn said.

Or you might share your own experience with mental health struggles you've had over the past year, Grasso said. And model self-care, he recommended. For instance, you might announce to your team, "I'm taking a mental health day on Monday."

Be accommodating when possible

The most recent stressor for many employees — since it involves upending routines they worked hard to build since the pandemic started — will be to once again work on site, whether five days a week or on a new hybrid schedule.

While it may not be possible in every situation, Grasso said, "Offer flexibility where you can. That is what is driving a lot of people's worries."