Mental Health Impact of COVID-19: Past, Present, FutureThe past year has presented unique emotional, professional, and social challenges. Employers are asking two questions: Is this the new normal? Does it make sense to implement changes for employee well-being?
We may be able to find the answer in history. One corollary, the SARs virus, had significant and lasting mental health repercussions. Most common diagnoses included PTSD (54.5 percent of survivors), depression (39.0 percent), somatoform pain disorders (36.4 percent)—a disorder in which the pain cannot be attributed to any physical issue—and panic disorders (32.5 percent). These mental health issues persisted for at least four years following the events. The impact of COVID-19 may be even farther-reaching and longer-lasting.
But mental health is not new. The virus and resulting pandemic have simply brought it to the forefront of our minds. We shouldn’t forget that even at pre-COVID-19 levels:
- Eighteen percent of the US residents are affected by anxiety disorders each year.
- While anxiety disorders are highly treatable, only 36.9 percent of those suffering receive treatment.
Let’s say that at pre-COVID-19 levels, around 20 percent of your 200-person company (or 40 people) have an anxiety disorder. Imagine that these are some of your best-performing employees: leaders in management, sales, engineering, HR, operations. Pandemic or not, we want to support them.
Employees Want Mental Health EducationThe first thing employers can do is recognize mental health as something we all experience, albeit at different times and levels. Consider grief. Some may experience grief after losing a loved one to the coronavirus. Others may experience grief over a lost goal or relationship. Not all of us will go through grief in the same way or at the same time. It’s a spectrum on which we constantly move up and down.
A recent study from October 2020 assessed the demand for education around psychology and coping interventions during the pandemic. More than 40,000 people responded to the survey. Of that number, 42 percent wanted psychological knowledge, and of those with anxiety and depression symptoms, 70 percent demanded such psychological knowledge.
While employers may think that busy employees don’t have time for additional training, the reality is that employees want this education. Those experiencing symptoms especially recognize that traditional degrees failed to prepare us with psychological coping skills. Modern leaders further understand that upskilling in emotional awareness is the basis for mental health and effective management.
Preventive Mental Health Education Can Cure and ConnectI advocate for a “flu shot” for mental health: preventive education that trains us to cope, communicate, and solve problems in mild situations before they become serious.
Stress, like the flu, is contagious. Animals can sense panic in their peers, and humans can smell stress in one another’s sweat. Our mental health doesn’t operate in a silo. It affects, and is affected by, every facet of our lives: ourselves, careers, and relationships. Stress from home affects our work, and vice versa, “infecting” colleagues, spouses, children.
Mental health education can also bring us together. Team-building trainings that focus on core human emotions and experiences, like grief and conflict, are relatable across all job titles and functions. Common education can make us all healthier and more connected.
Digital Mental Health Tools Improve Affordability and UptakeIn the October 2020 study, respondents wanted education and training, and they wanted it delivered by digital mediums. The top three methods people requested were via TV broadcast (73.6 percent), online training courses (43.4 percent), and online counseling (28.0 percent). Digital channels are practical for financial and usability reasons. Let’s take a closer look:
- Affordability. The average cost of depression to an employer’s medical bills is $10,836 per employee per year. Digital self-help can cost less than $50 per employee per year. Outfitting an entire 200-person company with digital resources costs the equivalent of treatment for one.
- Adoption. Digital self-help lowers barriers to adoption, especially for those more private or independent. One study on men’s mental health showed that 73 percent of male respondents believed they needed to solve their own problems. For many cultures and personalities, self-serve options are more palatable.
- Immediacy. Inconvenience is one of the biggest barriers to employee assistance program uptake. If we don’t have solutions at our fingertips, we often put off problems until it’s become a crisis. Digital tools can make well-being a just-in-time, continuous practice that inhibits problems sooner.
Mental health has always been, and will continue to be, a problem. Post-COVID-19, organizations may see an uptick in the need for more mental health services or risk paying a high price for treatment for their employees. The most ethical and financially sound way forward is to provide mental health programs in a way in which employees report to want to receive them: digitally. By providing digital health channels and more training in mental health, organizations will empower their employees, save money and time lost for treatment, and provide a healthier workforce culture.