The Escalating Need for Workplace Mental Health Support in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

April 1, 2021
April 1, 2021

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States was on the brink of a mental health emergency. In a Mental Health America survey conducted in 2017- 2018, 19% of adults said they were experiencing a mental illness—up one and a half million people versus the previous year. The catalysts involved are numerous—overuse and over-reliance on digital, social, and online media, financial strains, unemployment, inequality, etc. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which catapulted the mental health crisis into high gear.

An Unfolding Mental Health Crisis

According to the National Institute for Health Care Management, people with symptoms of anxiety have tripled from 8.1% to 25.5% between 2019 and 2020. Those experiencing depression symptoms have gone from 6.5% to 24.3%, and 80% of US adults believe the pandemic is an ongoing source of stress in their lives. At the same time, only 2% of the money spent on health care is being spent on mental health.


Mental Health Is Universal in Its Impact

Mental health has an impact on everything in healthcare—every patient’s care has a mental health component. Interestingly, despite their diagnoses, many patients only spend an average of $68 annually for their mental health, according to the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions. One reason is that many people are unclear about how to access mental health care. They have no idea which sources to trust and which type of professional is appropriate for their situation. It's not difficult to see—the healthcare system needs to improve in providing mental health care that is evidence-based and clinically sound. For now, however, it continues to be difficult for many who are suffering to identify resources and find mental health solutions.

The Issue of Mental Health Care and the Workplace

Workplace mental health and how organizations help employees is an especially complex and difficult problem. Currently, 68% of employees working from home during the pandemic are experiencing burnout according to Human Resource Executive. The Center for Workplace Mental Health tells us that on average, people who are experiencing depression miss 4.8 workdays per quarter. COVID-19 has made the situation even more challenging. In addition, we're all working in new ways; many employees are isolated at home, which can easily be a source of stress. Now during the COVID-19 pandemic, 51% of employees say they are experiencing declining mental health in the workplace.

At the same time, those who are suffering fear the impact that mental health problems could have on their careers. Some worry they may be fired if they disclose or discuss mental health concerns to a supervisor and others fear that admitting to mental health challenges might affect a promotion. For those who are prepared and able to communicate about their mental health, one in five usually is willing to talk with a supervisor, but only 5% will go talk to HR. Even though employees believe managers and HR staff are prepared to talk about mental health, in truth only 25% of HR professionals say that managers have received mental healthcare training and are prepared to help employees cope with mental health challenges.

One question leaders should be asking is—what are the impacts of offering better mental health care support in the workplace? They could potentially see improved customer experiences, increased employee engagement, and enhanced corporate culture. Employees are typically more productive when they feel their mental health care needs are understood and supported. Improving mental health care supports stronger recruitment and retention, which are already tremendous challenges in healthcare. Organizations can typically lower operational expenses, absenteeism, and benefits costs, and benefit from the risk mitigation related to employees who feel supported. In an industry like healthcare, where margins are low and organizations have to be ready to adapt, providing supportive mental health resources is a great investment in employees and ultimately the bottom line.