As more businesses return to in-person settings, employers and employees still have questions about mental health in the workplace. We talked with Behavioral Health Program Manager at AllWays Health Partners, David Macadam to learn ways employers can support employees mental health during this next transition. Share this information with your patients — or use it in your practice. Continue reading for part 1 of 2 of the interview series.
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 wellbeing.
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.
Next week, we'll share part 2 where David talks more about the benefits of supporting employees' mental health along with a list of resources.