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According to a fall 2020 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), more than half of U.S. adults reported that stress and worry over the pandemic had negatively impacted their mental health. As a result, KFF reported that mental health illnesses could soon replace obesity as the most common pre-existing condition in the United States. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows the number of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression increased from 11% during a six-month period in 2019 to nearly 42% at the beginning of 2021. 

Survey after survey is revealing how deeply the pandemic has impacted employees—from high levels of worry about health and safety to stress about financial health and burnout. According to a recent report from Robert Half, 44% of employees are feeling burned out on the job compared to a year ago and about half of those experiencing increased fatigue blamed it on a heavier workload. According to the latest Mental Health Index: US Worker Edition, risk of post-traumatic stress disorder is now 55% higher than pre-pandemic levels. This pandemic-fueled trauma is driving a decline in employee focus, especially among the nation’s youngest and oldest workers. 

There’s no question that the pandemic has played a big role in worsening the state of mental health in American workers. This has led to a massive shift in priorities for employers and HR leaders. In the early part of 2020, HR leaders were focused on employee experience—now, post-pandemic, the top priority is mental health and employee wellbeing

In this article, we’ll explore some practical things employers can do to ease worker anxiety and feelings of burnout. Discover why you need to acknowledge the anxiety your employees are feeling as they return to the workplace and how it affects performance. Find out what mental health benefits your business should consider adding or expanding to help minimize fatigue and combat burnout and why communication about these benefits is more important than ever. 

Why businesses need to acknowledge mental health issues

With mental health issues on the rise, employers must prioritize employee wellbeing as they plan for a return to on-site work. It’s critical for employers to replace any negative perceptions and stigma surrounding mental health with healthier attitudes and policies to ensure a smooth transition and support wellbeing. To be successful, it’s important to understand who your employees are so you can come up with solutions that allay their concerns. For example, do employees have concerns about health due to a chronic medical condition? Do employees have social anxiety because of caregiving responsibilities? If these issues aren’t understood or acknowledged, they can contribute toward feelings of stress, depression, and burnout

A recent McKinsey report noted that employees with children at home and those with greater mental health needs are particularly concerned about the mental health impacts of returning to on-site work. Parents are grappling with issues of work/life balance in terms of ongoing family priorities and responsibilities plus safety issues around children who have not yet been vaccinated. According to the report, these individuals noted that more flexibility and benefits like additional time off and flexible schedules could help reduce their stress. By minimizing stress, employers can help improve employee focus and productivity. 

Four mental health benefits considerations for employers

With so many workers feeling stressed and burned out from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, what can businesses do to help? For starters, now is a great time to review and expand your mental health benefits offering including time off policies, employee assistance programs (EAPs), and support for caregivers. 

Fortunately, small businesses can look to several recent examples of mental health benefits that made a positive impact on workers. When manufacturing plants at General Mills needed all hands on deck to respond to increasing demand for grocery products, many employees had to work overtime or skip time off. That’s when leaders at the company began looking for ways to keep their factory workers physically safe, mentally sound, and engaged in their work. To boost morale and relieve stress, GM rolled out the Gift of Choice program where workers could pick their choice of three rewards for a job well done: 1) Extra paid day off; 2) $250 bonus; or 3) Send a $250 donation to the charity of their choice.

Many other businesses have experienced success with offering additional time off, expanding mental health services, and more. Here are four things to consider: 

  1. Offer more paid time off—or even better, fight burnout with collective time off. Most businesses offer paid time off as part of their standard benefits package. To further minimize stress, many employers are offering extra paid time off to help address mental health issues or as a reward for job performance. Some businesses are even taking this idea a step further by mandating collective time off for the entire workforce. Experts say this approach is better for combating burnout because with individual PTO, employees often still feel the need to check-in. 

  2. Try a new strategy to minimize fatigue: Special hours. To help relieve pressure and stress, consider offering your employees the gift of time in a different way. For example, MailChimp implemented “Summer Fridays,” where the business day concludes at 1 p.m. from Memorial Day through Labor Day. No meetings are scheduled on Friday afternoons and employees are free to leave for the day to do whatever they want—whether it’s for recreation, personal responsibilities, or work-related learning and development.  

  3. Offer mental and emotional wellbeing perks like yoga classes. To aid employee wellbeing efforts, many experts recommend including access to optional programs like yoga classes and mindfulness training. To help combat worksite stress, some companies have tried creative ways to encourage workers to take short breaks for meditation or mindf
    ulness. If your business plans to offer something similar, take time to make sure that your program doesn’t create more stress for workers. Amazon’s AmaZen interactive kiosks were met with heavy criticism as coverage of their employment policies revealed a relentless, fast-paced environment where employee time is closely monitored. 

  4. Provide paid counseling services or sessions. Recent Pew Research revealed that about one-fifth of US adults are experiencing psychological distress. Other research reveals that feelings of stress and depression are especially high among caregivers. To address these and other mental health issues, companies like Walmart and Target have rolled out expanded no-cost counseling services and free counseling sessions to employees and their families. 

Communicate mental health benefits to employees

It’s more important than ever for businesses to communicate mental health benefits to employees and encourage utilization to combat stress, depression, and burnout. Simply sending out one email during open enrollment isn’t enough to drive utilization. Mental health issues are “often chronic issues that require ongoing care, and they can crop up any time,” which is why companies need an ongoing program that reinforces the availability of benefits to employees.

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