As companies continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, many have been reflecting on the year that was—or perhaps wasn’t. For a vast number of folks, priorities have shifted from simply surviving to remaining strong in the face of what has passed and what is to come.
Mental health remains a critical issue
Stress continues to be an issue for many employees. Stress can lead to anxiety, particularly if an employee is already predisposed to having some form of anxiety disorder. It’s the feeling of dread or an undefined restlessness, and it can result in feeling tense, fatigued, depressed or sick with headaches and stomachaches.
Employees who suffer from mental health issues are no different from those who have physical problems or an illness that requires treatment. And it’s not something they—or employers—can afford to ignore. Given that one in five American adults report living with a mental health challenge, these issues must be recognized and treated.
So, what can employers do to help employees cope?
Provide fundamental support
Employers can provide fundamental support to employees that can have an immediate effect on their well-being. These include:
- Understand the effects of mental health disorders and be a mental health advocate. Create an environment that encourages individuals to talk about mental health and make it okay to seek support. By taking the time to educate yourself on mental health, you will be more comfortable and confident in supporting someone.
- Be empathetic. Demonstrate that you truly understand and are able to share an employee’s feelings. If someone says he or she is feeling overwhelmed, in crisis or depressed, make sure you acknowledge those feelings. Don’t minimize them or try to pass them off as unimportant. Even if they don’t sound like big problems to you, they are to that individual.
- Listen before you talk. Whether an employee is expressing a problem or an idea, you should listen with an open mind and make the person feel valued. You don’t have to solve your employees’ problems; you simply have to make sure they feel heard. Listening also helps generate connections with others and lets them know you have their backs. Once the employee has finished talking, summarize what you heard and ask questions to make sure you understand. Then, if it makes sense, point the person to possible solutions.
- Use compassionate language.Empathetic language makes employees feel that you’re appreciating what they’re saying or feeling. Don’t brush off what the employee is saying by explaining how you’ve experienced the same thing and were able to get through it. It’s fine to share experiences but not when it invalidates someone else’s problem. You can say things like:
• I can see how difficult this has been.
• I hear what you are saying.
• It’s totally natural that you would feel this way.
• I can hear your concern in your voice.
• It sounds like you did everything you could.
Ask the right questions
Often, the hardest part of supporting your employees is starting the conversation. People may be struggling with a lot more than you think. But unless you offer encouragement, they might not share their feelings with you. How many times have you asked someone “How are you?” and the response back is “Good…how are you?”
But what if someone says he or she isn’t fine? What do you say? Start by asking questions like this:
• I’ve noticed you’ve been more quiet than usual in our meetings. Tell me more about how work is going for you.
• I’ve noticed you_______. How are you feeling?
• I know _______ (acknowledge something that happened in the person’s life). Anything you want to talk about?
• Is there anything I can do to help?
Before having this sort of conversation, consider timing and location. Do you need to set up a specific meeting or can it be more off the cuff? Which environment is the right place for this conversation? Consider finding a private location or going for a walk.
As you try to help support your employees, think of yourself as a flight attendant during turbulence. Stay calm and let your employees know they’re in a safe place.
Other mental health support options
Mental health exists on a continuum—it can range from feeling a bit overwhelmed by life and work to being diagnosed with a mental health disorder. A one-size solution does not fit all.
- Help employees access a wide range of tools to help them lower burnout and the possibility of depression, achieve a better work-life balance, reduce conflict at work (and even at home), improve sleep quality and reach higher levels of happiness.
- Consider pointing your employees to apps, many of them are free, which can help them practice mindfulness and meditation to help them focus and relax.
- Offer access to telehealth services where employees can talk with a mental health professional online.
- If the problems are more serious and immediate, direct employees to a crisis hotline.
- Recommend simple solutions including walking and exercising, stretching, mindful breathing, taking breaks, eating healthier foods, being grateful, finding ways to have fun and practicing being “present” to avoid anxiety.
Employers can be key partners in supporting the mental health of their employees. With COVID-19 so fresh in everyone’s lives, and given the emotional ups and downs employees experience whether the pandemic is present or not, it’s important to help employees feel more in control of their emotions, have more positive interactions and acknowledge every facet of their lives—including their mental health.
Courtney Patt is a senior health management consultant and mental health first aid instructor with Marsh & McLennan Agency (MMA) in Minneapolis, Minn. As IFAI’s preferred insurance provider, Marsh & McLennan Agency (MMA) provides comprehensive business insurance and employee health and benefit solutions tailored to IFAI members. For more information on how MMA can support your organization, please contact Andrew Burt at Andrew.Burt@MarshMMA.com or Kory Eastenson at Kory.Eastenson@MarshMMA.com.
SIDEBAR: Additional Resources
MMA’s Mental Health Communication Toolkit for employees
The Big Know
Mental Health First Aid Resources
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
The Crisis Text Line—Text “Home” to 741741
Your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and health plan (telemedicine/virtual health care)
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):
Mental Health America
Center for Workplace Mental Health—Employer Resources
The Bounce Back Project
PsychHub’s Mental Health & Wellness in the Workplace
Mental Health First Aid