August 24, 2020

Mental Health in the Workplace During COVID-19: How Can Employers Help?

The pandemic has caused mental health concerns to skyrocket, but businesses can be equipped with the right tools to support their employees.

Everyone has been affected differently by the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether that be adjusting to a new work-life situation, the loss of a job, or loved one, the weight of these unprecedented times can be heavy, and significantly impact our mental health.

Forced to contend with these additional stressors while still having to work, many workers are facing unexpected challenges with their mental well-being and needing support while at their jobs. As a result, many employers are now pursuing a renewed focus on— or learning how to navigate for the first time— the mental well-being of their employees.

Sagar Parikh, M.D.

“Depression, alcohol, other substance misuse and anxiety have all skyrocketed because of COVID,” says Sagar Parikh, M.D., professor of psychiatry and associate director of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Depression Center. “It’s having an impact on the business bottom line because sick employees mean decreased productivity and increased accidents at work.”

The key for management? Approach the issue proactively, Parikh explains.

“Mental health problems exist everywhere,” says Parikh.  “We know that in order to help people, we should go where they are rather than waiting for them to come to us.”

Adopting an employee assistance program (EAP) developed by academic professionals could help equip supervisors with resources to recognize and handle problems related to mental wellbeing. The work-site based program assists companies in identifying and resolving personal issues, including, but not limited to, health, family, financial, alcohol, drug, legal, emotional or stress, that may be affecting job performances.

And the Michigan Medicine Depression Center offers just that: a program for employers that provides strategies to improve mental wellbeing for employees. Rather than waiting for workers to reach out asking for help, the program equips supervisors and managers with free mental health tools, especially for struggling employees.

“We want [employers] to know how to help employees with more serious problems with depression in particular,” he says. A critical component of the training? Teaching supervisors how to properly talk to their employees and check in on their mental health. Managers learn how to talk to employees in distress without pushing them away or invading professional boundaries.

For example, instead of informally checking in with someone after a big meeting, employers should create opportunities for confidential conversations in a one-on-one setting. Empathy and assurance from a manager can go a long way in providing a safe space for employees.

The biggest difference between academically designed EAPs?

“Most employee assistance programs that currently exist are not well-suited for the serious mental health and stress problems of today’s employees,” Parikh explains.

The Depression Center provides resources from both health professionals and industry experts who offer expertise in this sensitive area. “What the employers buy [employee assistance programs] and what we do in academia are two separate worlds. We are trying to bring people from these two worlds together,” he says.