With COVID-19 dominating much of our lives, realities such as social isolation, economic losses, additional responsibilities at home, and increasingly heartrending headlines are all taking their toll on our mental health. As much of the world adopts social distancing to do their part to flatten the COVID-19 curve, many are experiencing increased feelings of stress, anxiety, sadness, or loneliness.
Although about one-half of Americans report that their mental health has suffered due to the current pandemic, many are struggling to find the time and energy to prioritize mental health. At first glance, this may seem surprising. Given stressors of the pandemic, wouldn’t it make sense for people to prioritize getting mental health support?
The reality, however, is that people are juggling a number of added pressures—simultaneously caring for kids while working full time, struggling to procure groceries and basic supplies, and supporting aging loved ones—all without leaving home unless absolutely necessary. So despite the palpable and growing need for mental health care right now, people may not feel that they have the time, space, or energy to devote to therapy or other types of self-care.
As the head of clinical quality at Lyra Health—a mental health benefits provider for companies like Starbucks, Genentech, and Pinterest—I have a unique vantage point. My work is focused on supporting our team of mental health clinicians, so they can provide the best evidence-based care when and where people need it most.
Over the past month, it’s become clear that while it’s everyone’s responsibility to care of their own mental health, employers have a crucial role to play during this difficult time. To borrow a well-worn phrase, this is a marathon, not a sprint. By prioritizing mental health, employers can help their employees move past survival mode and come out of this crisis feeling ready to tackle new goals at home and work.
How to help employees manage their mental health during the coronavirus crisis
Employers are currently focused on supporting a predominantly at-home workforce that’s grappling with challenges unlike any we’ve experienced before. Putting mental health at the forefront of the conversation is an important step organizations can take to ensure that employees have the support and resources they need now and for the future.
At Lyra, many of our employer partners have requested webinars or Q&A sessions focused on mental health strategies for their workforce—including topics such as effective communication and how to cope with stress or anxiety. Other employers are offering training on best practices—like keeping consistent one-on-one meetings and hosting fun, virtual meetups that allow for human connection with coworkers—to help managers identify and support employees dealing with mental health challenges.
We have also seen senior leadership across a number of companies step up to the plate with more regular town hall meetings focused on mental health awareness. This is encouraging, since employer education and communication around mental health is crucial if employees are going to access the care they need during this crisis.
Employers may wish to revisit policies like sick leave and PTO, and their protocols around performance reviews and bonuses. Giving people the time and space to take care of themselves and their families is important. Basecamp is a great example of a company that immediately prioritized the well-being of its people by giving them a four-day weekend to prepare for the transition to working from home during COVID-19.
Additionally, even small gestures from employers can mean the difference between employees feeling overwhelmed or being able to manage stress effectively. In recent weeks, we have seen great examples of this from companies that have offered perks like discounts on takeout food delivery and gift certificates for home-delivered snacks. Gestures like these can help employees feel cared about and connected during this time when everyone is feeling more vulnerable.
Companies are also successfully using technology to foster a sense of togetherness as they navigate through this time of uncertainty. For example, some organizations are requesting that managers communicate via video instead of phone for a more human, personal connection. Pinterest, a Lyra client, recently hosted a webinar on how they are supporting their 2,300 employees’ mental health today by providing virtual, evidence-based mental health care support and offering services such as virtual yoga and meditation classes. At Lyra, we too have found a number of ways to embrace company-wide virtual connection with regular live-streamed town hall meetings and 15-minute mindfulness sessions.
Lastly, employers must also consider how they will approach employee mental health benefits over the duration of this crisis. The incidence of anxiety and depressive disorders will likely increase as the effects of dealing with severe and prolonged stressors take their toll. A survey of Lyra therapists in late March showed that more than 85% have been focused on managing clients’ coronavirus-related concerns. This figure underscores how the pandemic can exacerbate issues for people with existing mental health challenges and prompt fear, stress, and anxiety among those without a diagnosable condition. For these reasons, it is important that employers revisit the mental health benefits they are offering employees and ensure that they are easy to access and personalized.
Taking care of ourselves and each other—including our families, friends, and coworkers—should be the first order of business right now. As employers look to both near-term and long-term solutions to support their workforce during the COVID-19 outbreak, mental health care should remain a focal point. Employers who are proactive, considerate, and flexible will be better positioned to weather this storm and to emerge post-pandemic with a resilient workforce.
Renee Schneider, PhD, is the vice president of clinical quality at Lyra Health.