Employers Show New Concern For Workers’ Mental Health

GKamini Cormier thought that mental health was a given. And then came the pandemic. She began feeling pains and aches all over her body in 2020. She figured she’d probably caught COVID-19 and scheduled lab tests, and an online appointment with her doctor. But the results didn’t indicate COVID. The doctor informed her that her body was being attacked by her bottled stress.

“I had to kick it up a notch in caring for my mental health,” says Cormier, 48, who is the Western region business operations lead for technology practice at professional services company Accenture. Cormier reached out to her employer for help with mental health. It’s something that many of her employees are more familiar with, since the pandemic. She found an online therapist to meet with weekly (paid for by her employer)—and started using a special app provided by her employer that offered calming music.

“People are talking about mental health issues at work in a way they were previously talking about high cholesterol or diabetes,” says Cormier.

It’s about time. Nearly 53 million Americans—roughly one in five adults in the U.S.—experienced some form of mental illness in 2020, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI). A recent YPulse research found that 27% of Millennials who recently resigned said they did it because the job wasn’t good enough for their mental health. Perhaps as a response, some 39% of employers updated their health plans since the start of the pandemic to expand access to mental health services, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2021 Employer Health Benefits Survey.

“Ten years ago, no one was talking about mental health at work,” says Jessica Edwards, chief development officer at NAMI. But since the pandemic, more than half of Americans say it’s much easier to discuss their mental health issues.

The pandemic effect

Working Americans—and their employers—are finally warming up to the notion that mental health care is as critical as physical health care. Mind matters. Bank of America placed a full-page advertisement in The Washington Post, which was something unimaginable even just a few decades ago. Washington Post in June 2022: “We drive open and ongoing conversations to help break through the stigma around mental health.” The ad stated that whether it’s through professional counseling, education, or tips for managing stress, “Our goal is to ensure our teammates get the resources they need.”

Promoting all aspects of wellness, including mental health, is not new to the company, says Bank of America’s chief human resources officer, Sheri Bronstein. “We listen, monitor and respond to changing needs,” she says. Through various programs and benefits, she says, “We support our teammates and their families through everyday issues, critical moments, and life events — including those we have all experienced and faced with the coronavirus pandemic.”

One-third of working Americans say it’s more acceptable now than before the pandemic to ask their employer for mental health support, according to a LinkedIn survey of 2,000 Americans in February 2022. And while 45% of Americans say they would have taken a “mental health” day off before the pandemic, some 65% of working Americans now say they would.

Find mental health friends

Cormier is one among them. She also has become an active volunteer member of Accenture’s mental wellness employee resource group. This program will help employees understand and use the company’s mental wellbeing resources. A three hour virtual training course is offered to employees. It teaches them how to react to stress and offers advice.

Kamini Cormier and her family at Disneyland

Kamini Cormier

Cormier gained the confidence to openly discuss her mental health issues in part because Accenture’s CEO made it a priority in virtual meetings.

“For me, it’s a personal thing,” says Jimmy Etheredge, CEO of Accenture North America. “I have several family members who have struggled with mental health for a number of years. So, it’s something I’ve always had a lot of passion about. It’s okay not to feel okay.”

If the pandemic has a silver lining, he says, it’s the way mental health discussions have moved out of the shadows and into the light at so many companies. He’s made certain that Accenture has taken actions both large and small to de-stigmatize those talks.

The company, for instance, created a “Mental Health Ally” program composed of 9,500 employees—including Etheredge and his entire leadership team—who received special training on how to support someone who reaches out for help.

Another 170,000 Accenture employees have completed the “Thriving Mind” program to learn how to handle stress and improve their well-being. Those who completed the program report an average 8 to 11% increase in their ability to handle stress and nine out of 10 participants said they felt “significantly” better able to handle workplace challenges afterward, the company reports.

Etheredge says it’s also on him to consistently put into action best business practices that support better mental health. He prefers to meet for 25 minutes instead of 30 to accommodate those with second meetings scheduled. After years of habitually eating at his desk, he’s also learned to step away for lunch. “I can say that with no shame,” he says. And instead of sending out business emails late in the evening, he uses time-delay, so they’re not sent until the following morning.

“I want people to feel safe, seen, and connected,” he says. “Our future growth depends upon the well-being of our talent. We have to be mindful and take care of the people we have.”

Businesses should not be concerned about this issue.

Even while most HR professionals say offering mental health care can improve workplace productivity and agree that it increases employee retention, employee mental health hasn’t been a top concern at many companies.

Only a third (or less) of 3,400 HR professionals polled by the Society for Human Resource Management this spring said that mental health is a top concern for their business. “It’s becoming a priority, but not a top priority,” says Wendi Safstrom, president of the Society for Human Resource Management Foundation.

According to one study, companies are reducing their focus on mental health as workers return to work. Headspace Health, an online mental health platform, found that 71% said that their employer increased mental health care in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But, 25% only say they’ve maintained the same focus for the past year.

What digital tools are available to assist

Survey results also showed some encouraging steps. According to the February 2022 survey, U.S. workers have used digital mental health tools such as meditation and remote therapy more than twice since 2020.

The Hartford insurance added additional digital resources in its 2020 benefits plan. Daylight, which is a digital anti anxiety app, was included. It teaches employees techniques to overcome negative thoughts and to face challenging emotions. Employees can now access concierge services to help them find the right treatment. It added an additional medical provider in April that provided more access for family members and employees to counseling and therapy.

“At The Hartford, we have taken a whole-company approach to remove stigma and create an open, inclusive environment,” says CEO Christopher Swift.

A mother’s story

Caitlin with her family.

Caitlin Tregler

Caitlin Tregler may have felt more at ease seeking out mental health aid because of this.

Tregler, 33, is a claims team leader at The Hartford, who says she lives with a social anxiety disorder — a form of extreme shyness that can cause her to withdraw from social interactions. The pandemic exacerbated her condition after she was pregnant and gave birth in the summer 2020 to her second baby. Her comfort came from her fellow workers and the use of company resources.

After an emergency C-section, she had to remain in hospital for another week due to complications. She was then allowed to go home. The COVID-19 condition was a major cause of anxiety for a mother-to-be. Although she was seeing a therapist for her disorder, she quickly realized — after she started working from home — that it was critical to increase her online therapy visits from bi-weekly to weekly.

She used to work from home up until February 2022. Now she comes into the office twice a week. Recently, she joined an employee resource group that aims to remove stigmas surrounding mental health aid.

“I don’t think I could work for a company that’s not as supportive,” she says.

Through the pandemic, Tregler learned the hard way about caring for her own mental well-being — including requesting occasional “mental health” days off “to reset myself,” she says.

This is precisely what positive mental wellness so often requires—an occasional reset.

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