A scientific brief by the World Health Organization recently found the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide. This is believed to be largely due to social isolation and the corresponding constraints on people’s ability to work, seek support from loved ones, and engage in their communities. Other factors included everything from loneliness, fear of infection, suffering and death for oneself and for loved ones, grief after bereavement, financial worries, and exhaustion.

As the pandemic dragged on, collective mental health worsened. A study by Boston University School of Public Health found depression among US adults was 8.5% before the pandemic, 27.8% in early 2020, and 32.8% in 2021. 

An American Psychological Association survey found that burnout and stress were at all-time highs across professions in 2021. Four in 10 employees had experienced work-related stress in the month before the survey—and it has impacted their work and personal lives. Three in five employees reported negative impacts of work-related stress, including lack of interest, motivation, or energy (26%) and lack of effort at work (19%). And 36% reported cognitive weariness, 32% reported emotional exhaustion, and 44% reported physical fatigue.

Mental health challenges are common and affect people’s personal and professional lives, yet they’re rarely discussed at work. It’s time to break the stigma. 

Offer mental health benefits

Include mental health coverage as part of your healthcare plan so your team members have some of the tools they need to manage their mental health challenges. You may even offer a health savings account to cover some or all out-of-pocket costs, thus removing financial obstacles to receiving care.

Other mental health benefits to consider include an employee assistance program (EAP), apps to help with meditation or sleep, a gym or wellness reimbursement program, and paid time off. Even benefits related to financial wellness or professional development can help address mental health challenges, as finances and personal growth can impact anxiety and depression.

Talk about mental health

With one in three people affected by depression, mental health challenges are probably more common among your team members than you realize. One of the best ways to break the stigma is to talk about it more. 

Share information about your mental health benefits throughout the year—not just during open enrollment—so they’re top of mind if your team members need to use them. Encourage your team members to take time during the work day for therapy sessions or other wellness activities. Host lunch and learn events on topics like stress management techniques. Encourage your employee resource groups to discuss mental health during meetings, and to provide feedback to your HR and leadership teams around opportunities to improve collective mental health. This can lead to a more inclusive company culture where your team members are more comfortable talking about their own mental health challenges and what’s helped to overcome them.

Train managers to recognize mental health challenges

Help your managers understand the signs of mental health challenges like burnout, stress, and depression. For instance, responding to emails in the middle of the night, sudden disengagement, or frequent absences. 

Encourage your managers to approach these situations with empathy and an open mind so you can help your team members who need better support. That may include communicating about company benefits and perks that could help, encouraging employees to take some time off, or offering more flexible work arrangements. Give your managers the authority to exercise their own discretion to address mental health challenges on their teams.

Encourage social interaction among team members

Social isolation is thought to have led to increased mental health challenges early in the pandemic, and may still be a contributing factor for some people. While strict lockdowns are less common now, people may not be working in the office, traveling much, or doing other activities that were a mainstay of pre-pandemic life.

Encourage social interaction among your team in a way that encourages connection while also making everyone feel comfortable. For example, you can enhance the virtual employee experience with activities like a talent show or a group online workout. It’s best if you can do these activities during regular business hours to be more inclusive of those who have other obligations in the evenings and on weekends.

Final thoughts

Mental health challenges are quite common and helping your team members navigate them can have many wonderful benefits for your team members and your business. In fact, every $1 put into scaled up treatment for common mental disorders yields a $4 return in improved health and productivity. 

Investing in employee mental health is the best way to combat record-high levels of burnout, anxiety, and depression so your team members can be the best version of themselves.

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Break the Stigma. How HR Can Support Mental Health at Work