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A confluence of factors – largely stemming from stress and a loss of connections amid COVID-19 – have contributed to a substantial uptick in mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
"Mental health therapists are busier than they've ever been," said Laraine Murdock, a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) who practices with Revere Health at their St. George, UT Behavioral Health location. "People's lives have gotten out of balance."
This has implications in every facet of life, including the workplace. According to the CDC, poor mental health and stress can negatively affect job performance and productivity, engagement with work, communication with coworkers, and daily functioning on the job.
As an article by mental health coaching service BetterUp puts it, "Supporting mental health in the workplace is no longer nice-to-have, but a necessity."
So what can employers do to prioritize this necessity? Here are four proven strategies:
1. Destigmatize the issue of mental health in the workplace
More employees are talking about their mental health at work than in 2019, according to survey results published in Harvard Business Review (HBR). However, only 49% reported their experience of talking about mental health at work as positive.
HBR offers several strategies to address this including:
- Training leaders to treat mental health as an organizational priority (beyond just HR)
- Empowering employees to form mental health employee resource groups (ERGS)
- Establishing norms around communication, responsiveness, and urgency
- Encouraging leaders to share their perspectives and experiences related to mental health
"Employers must move from seeing mental health as an individual challenge to a collective priority," HBR suggests. "Given all the workplace factors at play, companies can no longer compartmentalize mental health as an individual's responsibility to address alone through self-care, mental health days, or employee benefits."
Other organizational-wide approaches could include regular mental health surveys to check in on employees, no email after hours, focused work time, and no-meeting days.
A case study published by the Center for Workplace Mental Health details how a construction company, whose industry has the highest suicide rate of any occupational group, addressed the question: "How do we reduce stigmas and make it okay to talk about mental health concerns in a tough-guy and gal environment"?
2. Educate employees
The CDC suggests employers host seminars or workshops that address depression and stress management techniques, like mindfulness, breathing exercises, and meditation, to help employees reduce anxiety and stress and improve focus and motivation.
"Deep breathing puts pressure on your vagus nerve which stimulates your calming system," Murdock said. "Old and new research still puts deep breathing front-and-center in terms of helping to reduce the intensity of a strong emotion."
The CDC also suggests distributing materials, such as brochures, flyers, and videos, to all employees about the signs and symptoms of poor mental health and opportunities for treatment.
Don't limit education efforts strictly to mental wellness, however. Consider education in other areas that correlate with mental health, such as financial wellness.
That's what Prudential Financial, an insurance and financial services company, did by introducing financial wellness programs to help employees learn about managing money, saving, and investing. This helped alleviate a significant stressor for their employees and resulted in higher productivity and declining rates of absenteeism and depression.
3. Foster a culture to improve connections
Isolation has been one of the biggest drivers of mental health issues since the COVID-19 pandemic. And the impact is real.
"A study done by BYU and other universities found that loneliness is almost as detrimental as smoking in terms of lowering life expectancy," said Allan Pauole, Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CMHC), who practices with Revere Health at their Provo, UT Behavioral Health location.
The good news is that creating a connected atmosphere in the workplace doesn't have to be challenging.
"The big thing is making sure you are checking in with your colleagues and coworkers and asking how they are doing," Pauole said. "If I'm in between patients I'm always walking up and down with the staff and making jokes or saying something to break up the seriousness of what we're doing. The little things go a long way."
4. Embrace technology solutions – to an extent
Employers should be cognizant of the rise in demand for digital health solutions, such as wearables and virtual therapy sessions, and consider offering these as options to address mental health challenges in the workplace, according to a McKinsey & Company article.
Apps like Calm and Headspace have been shown to promote positive mental health for their users.
"Headspace is good because it teaches you to be mindful," Murdock said. "The research shows that practicing mindfulness grows connections in your brain. This helps bring you back to the here-and-now instead of worrying about the past or the future.
While new technology can be helpful, it does come with a word of caution from Murdock.
"It's great that we have tools like social media and Zoom, but they don't replace face-to-face connections that release oxytocin and other hormones in your body that make you feel good."
Struggling with your mental health? Revere Health can help
Revere Health has taken a unique approach to behavioral health by integrating it with their family medicine clinics. There are several advantages to offering both services under the same roof:
"It provides continuity of care because you can address your physical and mental health all in the same place," Pauole said. "It also takes away some of the stigmas because when you come into one of the family medicine clinics, no one else in the waiting room knows anything about why you are there."
Revere Health also serves as another option for those seeking treatment in the current logjam.
"Sometimes if you are seeking mental health services it can take several weeks to get seen for an appointment," Murdock said. "That's why it's so critical that people know that Revere Health's clinic is open and available to anybody because it's just one more resource for people throughout the state."
Visit reverehealth.com/specialty/behavioral-health/ for more information and to view a list of behavioral health clinics.