Coronavirus (COVID-19), HR Management & Compliance

Tending to the Emotional Life of the Workplace at a Time of High Stress

In the past, an employee’s mental health wasn’t any of his or her employer’s business. Now it is. In response to the fast-growing coronavirus epidemic and the mandate that almost everyone shelter in place and work from home, workers might suddenly feel trapped and isolated.


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The pandemic and the lifestyle changes resulting from the public response to it have triggered a range of significant medical and mental health concerns in previously healthy individuals.

That can be a real problem in itself. But for people with already diagnosed emotional issues, economic setbacks and the abrupt lifestyle changes resulting from social distancing can have a considerably more harmful impact.

The Cost of Mental Illness Is Rising

Mental health issues are not unusual. One out of every four people will experience a mental health challenge at some point in their lifetime, according to both the World Health Organization and a recent study by Teladoc Health. Clinical depression, which can be aggravated by workplace stress, currently affects one in five U.S. adults.

Now, increased work-related stress, including job strain (especially for those essential workers on the front lines) and long working hours (a noted effect of working from home), can also contribute to serious physical health problems. This type of elevated stress level increases the risk for heart disease and stroke, as well as contributes to depression and other mental health challenges, for the first time.

The results have been costly. Just a decade ago, the annual expenses associated with work-related stress had reached an estimated $190 billion. Depression and anxiety costs were estimated to have been another $211 billion. Half of those costs, or roughly $200 billion, was borne by employers, primarily in the form of lost productivity, absenteeism, and reduced engagement at work. Those numbers have certainly grown since then.

Untreated mental illness can result in a host of problems for an organization. Among them:

  • Distracting employees from being productive
  • Damaging employees’ quality of life
  • Degrading employees’ physical health
  • Increasing costly medical claims
  • Damaging corporate culture and employee morale
  • Triggering antisocial behavior

Employer Initiatives Help Workers in This Emergency

It’s clear that the emotional health of employees is an important business issue, one that needs to be taken seriously. Employees bring their whole selves to work, including their personal challenges and worries about family members.

At the same time, at least in the western world, there is still a stigma about admitting to a mental health issue. But putting mental health care on par with physical well-being has lessened the stigma, and many organizations have added new benefit programs created to address mental illness as a treatable disease, not as a moral failing.

Employers should be on the lookout for opportunities to help employees take better control of their personal mental well-being, particularly in a time of real emergency. This should involve more than just a demonstration of careful hand-washing or social distancing techniques. It is bigger than that.

In some places, it is even a legal concern. In the United Kingdom, for example, employers “have a duty to assess the risk of stress-related ill health arising from work activities,” including help in mitigating employees’ psychological burdens.

This might strike many U.S. employers, for which protecting an employee’s privacy has long been considered a legal dilemma, especially when broaching mental health issues without stepping on Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations.

It is reasonable to prepare for the physical and financial impact associated with the COVID-19 outbreak, which will require creative planning and programming by employers, as will supporting employee engagement in the belief that their employer is there for them in all aspects of their health.

The Time to Focus on Mental Health Is Now

Rapid changes in the workplace are continuing to outpace people’s ability to manage the associated health impacts, which have left many workers bewildered and stressed. The time to focus on mental health at work is now—to build the resiliency that will help see employees, and the business itself, through challenging times.

Jeanne Griffin, RN, MPH, is a Principal in the Health Intelligence practice at Buck, an integrated HR consulting, technology, and benefits administration services firm. With more than 30 years in total population health management and clinical analytics, she works with organizations to identify unique solutions for their employees’ health and well-being.

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