The holidays and the dawn of a New Year are traditionally a time for celebration with friends and family, but as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to weigh heavy on society at large, and derail or significantly influence large gatherings, there is more stress than joy in the air. Given the toll this uncertain environment has already taken on mental health, there is no question some employees will struggle in the weeks ahead.
There are serious human concerns associated with the state of mental health, including increased anxiety and depression, growing substance use, and suicidal thoughts. But even when people are not suffering such extreme impacts, there is reason for employers to take mental health seriously. For example, depressed employees miss an average of 31.4 days of work per year and lose another 27.9 days to low productivity.
Given the impact that poor mental health may have on overall employee satisfaction and productivity, here are five steps employers can take to address whole-person health and ease the transition through the holidays into 2022.
Offer Mental Health Support
While there is widespread recognition that employees benefit from mental health support in the workplace, there is still a stigma attached to seeking help. Add in pandemic concerns, and in-person mental health care may not be an ideal solution. Fortunately, there is an alternative. The United States has seen dramatic growth in the use of telemental health services over the past 18-plus months, and psychotherapy was the most common telehealth procedure in the country last January. Similarly, use of mental health self-help apps has grown dramatically during the pandemic, with 4 million first-time downloads of the Top 20 such apps in April of 2020. However, with between 10,000 and 20,000 mental health apps to choose from, it’s hard to guarantee employees will find the right support for their specific needs, and sorting through the options may only add to their frustration and anxiety.
Employers can help in two important ways. First, they can make mental health care more approachable by normalizing the discussion of mental health in the workplace. Second, they can make care more accessible by equipping employees with trusted, on-demand mental health resources that allow employees to address their mental health needs on their own terms and from the comfort and safety of home.
Support Mindfulness Breaks
Even if employees aren’t suffering significant mental health challenges, many may need support to keep minor annoyances from becoming major distractions. Employers can help by implementing mindfulness breaks throughout the workday. Mindfulness is many things to many people, but at its core mindfulness is a set of exercises that help employees understand their feelings in the moment, change their relationship with distractions, and focus their attention where it is most valuable. Whether you offer in-person or live instruction or access to classes employees can complete on their own, allowing employees to incorporate mindfulness into their workday can help reduce stress and anxiety, and improve overall quality of life.
Want an even easier way to support employee mental health? Encourage fitness or movement. Regular exercise has been shown to significantly reduce depression and anxiety, and it doesn’t take a major commitment. Even 10 to 15 minutes of exercise can make a difference. Help employees stay active by giving them access to fitness classes that fit their schedules, interests, and ability levels – from quick stretching breaks they can do at their desks or workstations to high-intensity classes that will really get their heart pounding. Offering a variety of classes is important, because the mental health benefits of exercise are most pronounced when people maintain a routine over an extended period. When employees have a diverse selection, including classes at a range of ability levels, they are more likely to find classes they like – and that will grow with them as their fitness improves – and more likely to commit for the long term.
Support Good Nutrition
Maintaining a balanced diet isn’t just good for the waistline. Sugar and processed foods can cause inflammation in the body and brain, which may contribute to anxiety and depression. And given that sugary foods play a central role in holiday celebrations, now is the perfect time to reinforce good eating habits among employees. Collect healthy recipes into a holiday cookbook, or offer access to video cooking classes that help employees make easy, healthy meals. If employees are working from the office, consider replacing candy and donuts with more nutritious alternatives. By encouraging employees to fuel their body with fruits and vegetables rather than a steady diet of sugar cookies, employers can help support both mental and physical health.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been remarkably isolating for many people. Cut off from regular social connections – and in many cases from their co-workers thanks to last year’s rapid shift to remote work – many employees may experience a decline in both mental and physical health. In extreme cases, social isolation has even been shown to increase the risk of premature death. A traditional office Christmas party may be out of the question this year, but employers can still take steps to bring employees together. For example, you can introduce employees to on-demand, virtual fitness offerings that allow them to schedule workouts together or create challenges that encourage co-workers to try new classes. For a more sedentary alternative, schedule online happy hours or virtual dinner parties and encourage employees to share their favorite recipes. Then, prepare them together and enjoy the results.
As you close the books on 2021, be sure to account for how your company culture supports a healthy, balanced transition into the New Year. With a few simple changes you can help employees get the help they need to address or avoid mental health challenges and start 2022 with their best foot forward.
Jason Von Bank is president and CEO of Wellbeats, a scalable, affordable, and easy-to-use virtual fitness solution that empowers habit-forming physical and mental health for its more than 1.9 million members.