A New Focus on Mental Health has Permanently Changed the Workplace

Businesses recognize how stress and anxiety are affecting staff members. Maintaining mental wellness and well-being is now in focus.

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A New Focus on Mental Health has Permanently Changed the Workplace

Here's what you need to know about how a new focus on mental health has permanently changed the workplace:

  • Even the strongest were not immune to anxiety and stress.
  • More can be done proactively to keep the focus on mental well-being.
  • If employers can retool mental wellness benefits as stress management or professional development offerings, they may become more accessible and more utilized.

The pandemic changed how we live and work at a moment’s notice. For many employers, the way to keep staff and customers safe was to shut down or drastically change the way they did business. Others decided that shifting to remote work was the solution. For everyone, fear, stress, anxiety, and a lower degree of mental wellness became the norm rather than the exception.

We worried about health and financial security. We dealt with the pressures of home- or remote-schooling while trying to stay employed. The stress was ongoing, often increasing, as government, healthcare, businesses, and workers tried to cope.

If there is a silver lining to the pandemic, it may be a changing attitude toward mental health and wellness. Even the strongest were not immune to anxiety and stress. As we return to whatever the new normal is, COVID will not be forgotten. It may be a model for how we approach and manage mental well-being for our staff members and ourselves.

Work/life balance takes on new meaning

Work/life balance may have seemed like a ‘nice-to-have’ before the pandemic. Afterward, it became a ‘must-have.’  Assuring work did not affect health or vice versa was an unexpected outcome of the virus. As a result, a new focus on mental health has arisen. It’s reflected in the:

  • Services we provide
  • Support we offer
  • De-stigmatization of leveraging what’s available

The direction is clear: attend to mental health as much as physical well-being for a robust and capable workforce.

Many businesses have Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and services provided through healthcare coverage when employees are in need. As we move forward, more can be done proactively to keep the focus on mental well-being. Acknowledge that just because we survived the storm doesn’t mean we were unscathed.

These services are available when the need arises, certainly. Still, they’re also there to keep a problem from going too far. Business leaders can promote using these wellness tools as we unravel the stress of the last two-plus years. Leveraging them today may avoid a more significant issue tomorrow.

Taken from the top

Prioritizing employee mental health must be a top-down initiative. The last two years focused businesses and staff on physical health. We worked to mitigate risk and exposure by:

  • Separating
  • Sanitizing
  • Creating barriers

We watched for signs our efforts didn’t work. A sniffle or sneeze could have meant COVID. Exposure or proximity to someone infected meant isolating for our own protection and for others’. Maintaining physical health took on a new urgency.

Businesses recognized how stress and anxiety were affecting staff members and looked for solutions to mitigate fears while maintaining productivity.

Maintaining mental well-being was also in focus. Businesses recognized how stress and anxiety were affecting staff members. They looked for solutions to mitigate fears while maintaining productivity. They enrolled in or promoted personal and mental health programs for employees to use for stress and anxiety-related issues. The physical risk is over for most, but the mental health fallout is ongoing. Leadership must continue to support staff in their return to wellness, both physically and mentally.

How do I promote mental well-being?

Start with the assumption that the occasional notification of services available isn’t enough. The once-a-year, ‘here’s a benefit we’re providing’ notation at open enrollment doesn’t encourage anyone to get help. Letting staff members know something is there if they need it is only the jumping-off point.

Move beyond notification to promotion

The pandemic has given employers a unique opportunity to promote mental health and suggest every employee can benefit from these services. We’ve been under unprecedented stress and pressure: collectively, we can benefit from help. Whether it’s readjusting to life back onsite or continuing to work remotely, the workforce is adapting. Personal well-being programs can help ease the transition — and they’re available 24/7.

When businesses promote the services frequently and remind staff that everyone has been through the wringer, the stigma of using mental health services can be lessened.

  • Talk about your programs
  • Send out emails
  • Text reminders
  • Bring providers onsite to discuss the services

Anything you can do to open access is worthwhile.

Why offer an EAP?

More than half, 60%, of workers in the U.S. have access to an EAP. For businesses, the cost of this benefit can be extremely low – as little as a dollar a month per employee. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates these programs have a high return on investment.

For every dollar a business spends on an assistance program, they reap $5 to $16 in return. These returns are reflected in reductions in absenteeism and turnover, lower health care costs, and improved engagement and productivity.

Business leaders know the advantage of the programs, but they are one of the most underutilized of all employee benefits. On average, nationally, only 3 to 6% of workers leverage the services available. That can change with a shift in thinking from employers and a commitment to mental and personal well-being for staff.

There’s a direct link between wellness program offerings and the ability to attract and retain talent. When a business prioritizes mental well-being, its workforce benefits, and so do they. Staff members get the help they need, and businesses see higher productivity and performance. As a low-cost perk, an EAP offers a strong return on investment.

Mental health services are a priority

We spoke with Alex Simmons, Cofounder and CEO of Boon Health. This EAP provider offers professional coaching and mental health services. Simmons says the focus should be on providing services as an accessible ongoing resource rather than an emergency fix.

Simmons comes from an investment banking background, where 80 to 100-hour workweeks can be the norm. He tells Workest assistance programs are often seen as crisis management tools, suggested after a problem has arisen. For many employees, using these services carries too much stigma; admitting they need help is a bridge too far.

If employers can retool the benefits as stress management or professional development offerings, they may become more accessible and more utilized.

Combating burnout and stress

No one is immune to stress — suggesting employees leverage a program that helps manage, reduce, or even redirect stress can be an access point. The conversation can start with an observation that we’re all under pressure and need to work individually and as a group to manage stress. When the message from the top is ‘it’s okay not to be okay,’ wellness can become a shared goal rather than a personal failing.

At Boon, offerings include professional development tools — like leadership and management training. Employees can feel comfortable using these as part of their professional growth.

Putting the focus on personal and professional development

Often, leveraging the coaching and skills training they receive allows them to access further resources, like mental health and wellness programming. To make services more approachable, Boon offers access through professional development, which every employee is interested in.

“The best programs out there are worthless if no one is using them,” says Simmons.

From a business perspective, the manager’s recommendation begins with an interest in professional development rather than a concern about mental health and well-being. Leaders can approach staff and suggest the service as a means to further their career with coaching on a range of professional development topics. Once enrolled, they can access various other programs, including mental health and well-being.

What’s your biggest 2022 HR challenge that you’d like to resolve

Answer to see the results

Staff members receive one-on-one coaching solutions that build skills and frequently address issues like job burnout, anxiety, and stress.

“The challenge is to make one-on-one programs available at scale,” says Simmons.

To do that, Boon has a team of coaches and professionals across the country. They find that about half of their clients have never previously worked with a coach or therapist. The hybrid model — professional coach and/or behavioral health professional — is a new way to provide access. The barrier to getting help from a therapist is gone when the employee begins their journey as a way to develop leadership, communication, or other professional skills.

What can employers offer beyond EAPs?

If your company doesn’t offer an employee assistance program but provides healthcare coverage, many avenues are available. Remind employees (as a group) to talk to their doctor about stress they may be feeling due to returning to onsite work or pressure they may be experiencing if your organization is understaffed (and whose isn’t?). These conversations can open the door to mental health services, either in person or through telehealth.

Some employers go beyond traditional EAP programs and work with local small businesses on yoga, massage, or meditation services. These can help employees manage stress and center themselves. Another option is to offer and promote gym memberships and athletics; working out can be a great way to burn off stress and negative energy. Talk to staff members about services they might want, need, or currently utilize — it can start with anonymous suggestions or move up to team discussions.

We’re moving forward one step at a time

Thankfully, most survived COVID, but few were unscathed by the experience. From the most profound anxiety — about health, family, and finances — to the minor stresses that rob us of focus, the pandemic left its mark.

A new focus on mental health may have been long overdue for businesses. Keep the emphasis on whole health — mind, and body — for staff as you move forward. Your employees will thank you, and so will your bottom line.


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