As many return to in-person work settings, many questions are circling the minds of employers and employees focused on mental health in the workplace. So, we interviewed our Behavioral Health Program Manager at AllWays Health Partners, David Macadam—to uncover his perspective backed by his experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. Continue reading to learn about ways employers can support employees' overall well-being during this next transition.
Q: With some employees going back into the office, whether full-time or part-time, how can employers support employees through another phase of change?
A: Employers must check in with employees to get their feedback and find out their needs as this next shift occurs. Employers should expect various feelings and responses, dependent on employees' schedules and how much time they're expected to work in person. Even with the vaccine rolling out, there is still a lot of anxiety and worry about what things look like working back in person. It's different for every employee, but depending on the amount of socializing they've had over the past year, there will be strangeness for those remerging and interacting in ways people aren't used to.
Recently, I met some friends I hadn't seen in a year, but now that we were all vaccinated, we finally felt comfortable. It was relieving to have a normal social experience, but it was also a reminder that we hadn't done it in so long, which felt odd. So, I think employers must survey employees to get a sense of where they are in their comfort level. Independently, it's safe to assume many employees will have a pent-up stress response. This last year has contributed to stress at the minimum and increased rates of anxiety and depression at the maximum. Employers should outline the available resources for stress management, whether it's digital support, apps, formal counseling benefits, or informal support groups. It helps people feel less isolated when they can have a group experience and see they aren't alone.
At AllWays Health Partners, we did that internally, guiding employees to focus on self-care and finding creative ways to engage and connect. I'm not sure if people got enough of that this year in a remote setting limited to video and telephonic engagements. I'm sure there are a lot of people that are craving that in-person engagement.
During this next transition, employers need to publicize and encourage access to any of their wellness programs. We know that physical activity is good for our mental and physical health, but it hasn't been easy to do over this last year, especially if you're used to formal exercise inside a gym or being part of a sports team. Outside of those limitations, based on conversations with colleagues, it appears it's been difficult for a lot of people to disengage from at work at times. For those working remotely full time for the first time, it wasn't always easy to set boundaries, especially for parents who had to take care of kids. Self-care was important for employees, even before a pandemic, so helping employees prioritize self-care and set boundaries will continue to be important through this next phase. Any readjustment is stressful, and while there is a lot of excitement for things opening up, there's still a significant change. Supporting employee wellness is vital. Connected to that, employers should encourage employees to take time off and use their PTO. Many didn't take earned vacation time this year because of the mentality, where am I going to go? What am I going to do? I'm stuck at home; I can't do much; why would I take time off? The reality is that it still makes a difference if it changes your routine, allowing you to take a break. Now with more things opening back up, knowing that there will be more flexibility, it's important for people to take the time off they need to take a proper step back.
Q: Do you see the need for employers to support employees' mental health in the workplace as ongoing?
A: From my perspective, I think it absolutely will be ongoing—and I don't think it's anything new. A focus on wellness and self-care and more formal availability of mental health resources aren't specific to the pandemic. Research indicates anxiety and depression went underreported and are prevalent in general. The pandemic allowed people to have a shared experience contributing to a shared stress response, which normalizes it a bit more. Something we talk about often in the mental health space is the stigma around the need for mental healthcare as if there's something wrong with someone who needs support for their mental health. We've worked for a long time to break that stigma because the reality is that a need to invest in your mental health is a need that 100% of the population has. It's not an either-or situation when it comes to physical and mental health; it's part of a complete view into a person's well-being.
In some cases, employees may not feel comfortable sharing a struggle with their employer. This makes it that much more important to have a space within your business culture that feels supportive of understanding and accessing wellness resources to take care of yourself. That's going to be a critical ongoing focus for employers.
Q: Do you think employers have a responsibility to acknowledge and support employees' mental health?
A: I think no matter what industry you're talking about, employer outcomes are better when employees are cared for. A depressed or anxious employee will impact their performance and be a detriment to the employers' overall goals. Regardless of what job you're talking about, if you support employees' health and wellness outcomes, it will positively impact their performance and work presence. From a pragmatic point of view, you're going to want the people that work for you to be the best they can be because then they're going to perform the best. It's mutually beneficial for the employer and employees.
Q: Do you think virtual meeting fatigue is connected to the increase in mental health issues? Do you see any solutions for that that employers can implement?
A: I think it will be interesting to see what research can tell us about that in the long term. Video platforms kept people connected, but like anything, there are pluses and minuses to new technology and a different way to work. I have to wonder if part of that virtual fatigue is because people felt required to be overly connected. Employees could switch it up by having a meeting via audio instead of video so that they can take a walk during the call, so you're having some movement vs. being in front of the screen the whole time.
In some ways, I think it parallels an experience we heard before the pandemic, with people in an office setting being too sedentary. If you're sitting at a desk too long, there are negative health consequences. We saw recommendations like take 5-minute breaks every hour to move around or stretch. We also saw the implementation of standing desks. In the same way, I think if you're plugged into video all the time, it's just another thing that you have to find a way to find balance. Too much of anything is probably going to lead to an unhelpful outcome. I don't think those technologies are going away, and I think many of them have useful applications, especially if you're in a hybrid work situation. To that point, just having the possibility of a hybrid situation allows for a change in scenery and interaction. It's more about finding the appropriate space, so you're not overly connected. Encourage employees to disconnect after work hours because, for many, it feels like the workday doesn't end time because of our access to the technology needed to do our jobs. If you're accessing work applications after hours, you're never really disconnected from work-mode, which isn't sustainable.
Mental health resources available through AllWays Health Partners
www.optumeap.com -At Optum's public EAP site you can find a toll free emotional support line open to anyone, Podcasts, FAQs relevant to COVID (e.g. Grief, Loss, Anxiety, Tips for Parents etc.), and helpful webinars on working remotely, returning to in person activities, dealing with traumatic events, getting the best of stress, etc.
www.liveandworkwell.com - Optum's live and work well site has updated information on behavioral health resources and tools, behavioral health provider directory, child and adolescent behavioral health supports, and virtual visit platform. You can register and sign in as a member or sign in as a guest to browse materials by using allwaysma as your guest login. Some of the resources include:
- Mental Health Support for Children and Adolescents- BHCA services, this community-based network offers a wide range of services to children through age 18, from in-home therapy to family support and training. Services can take place at home, school or out in the neighborhood. More information found in the "Highlighted Benefits" tab, including a downloadable list of BHCA providers.
- Virtual Visit Platform- access outpatient therapists and medication providers remotely, can be found under the "Find a Resource" tab.
- Sanvello App-Sanvello is an app that offers clinical techniques to help dial down the symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression — anytime. Connect with powerful tools that are there for you right as symptoms come up. Found under "Popular Tools" tab.
- Resources and FAQs on depression, anxiety, ADHD, SUD, and many other behavioral health areas.
- Coping Center: Type the keyword "coping" into the search bar, select Coping. Here you'll find articles, guides, self-help tools, and videos on coping with stress.
- Mindfulness Center: Type the keyword "mindfulness" into the search bar, select Mindfulness Center. Here you'll find breathing and meditation exercises, guides, videos and tools for practicing mindfulness.
- Resiliency Resources: Learn more about bouncing back after difficult times. Type "resiliency" into the search bar select Recovery & Resiliency Center.
- Parent's Resources: View a variety of parenting resources. Type "parenting" into the search bar, select the Parenting topic center.
Substance Use Treatment Helpline (1-855-780-5955) is available 24 hours a day. The Substance Use Treatment Helpline is staffed with highly trained and licensed advocates. An advocate will talk with you about your concerns and your unique situation. They will answer questions, support you in connecting with treatment providers, and help create a personalized treatment plan. You can call the Substance Use Treatment Helpline at the number above or visit liveandworkwell.com/recovery. You can also click to chat from substance use areas on the website.
Talkspace is a virtual BH provider group that AllWays Health Partners commercial members can access. Talkspace will match members to a provider on the same day and offers asynchronous messaging, video messaging, and real time audio/video sessions with a therapist. Members can access them directly by going to https://www.talkspace.com/connect and clicking on "get started" under the "use my insurance benefits" section.