Creating Mental Health Support for Returning Workers

A Comprehensive Guide to Promoting and Supporting Employee Mental Health

Mental health professional talks with female patient
••• asiseeit / Getty Images

Employee mental health has always been a critical issue in the workplace, as problems arising from it can impede productivity, morale, and the bottom line. For this reason, providing mental health support to employees should be a talent management priority—one that has grown even more urgent in light of COVID-19.

According to an April 2020 Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 45% of American adults said their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the virus. Quarantine, social distancing, and stay-at-home orders have caused many to experience isolation, job loss, and anxiety—all of which are tied to undesirable mental health outcomes. If you were forced to close your worksite because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and you’re ready to reopen, it’s crucial to develop a plan for supporting the mental health of returning workers.

Programs for Supporting Employee Mental Health

The effects of the coronavirus pandemic on employees are expected to continue well after the initial crisis stage. On the upside, this is an opportunity for you to show your returning employees that you care about their mental well-being.  

For example, you can offer:

  • Health insurance that includes mental health support:

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires most small-group health insurance plans to cover mental health and substance use disorder services.

  • Telemedicine: Enables employees to obtain medical care remotely instead of making in-person visits. Remote care services are crucial to social distancing and limiting the spread of COVID-19.
  • Wellness and well-being programs: Inspire healthy living, such as stress management activities, smoking cessation, yoga or meditation classes, nutritious snacks, fitness classes, health risk assessments, disease and weight management, health education, and financial counseling.
  • Tax-advantaged Dependent Care Assistance Program (DCAP): For employees with caregiving responsibilities, such as child or elderly care.
  • Flexible work hours: Help employees achieve work-life balance by, for instance, giving them more freedom over their work schedule by letting them choose their arrival and departure times.
  • Paid time off (PTO): Takes the form of paid vacation, sick, and/or personal time, separately allocated for each of those purposes. Or, you can opt for a PTO bank system that lumps paid time off into one pool that the employee can draw from for any reason. 
  • Employee Assistance Program (EAP): A confidential resource designed to address complex issues disrupting employee mental health, such as marital discord, financial difficulties, stress, grief, psychological disorders, and alcohol or substance abuse. 

Benefits of Providing Employee Mental Health Support

Businesses that promote and support employee mental health stand a higher chance of lowering absenteeism, boosting productivity, and reaping related economic gains, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Per the WHO, for every $1 put into scaled up treatment for common mental disorders, there is a return of $4 in improved health and productivity.

By focusing on prevention, early detection, intervention, and personalized support, employers can help decrease work-related stress

This type of stress can materialize in many ways, such as back pain, heart disease, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, depression, anxiety, loss of focus, skewed judgment, and other physical and psychological illnesses.

Another important benefit of providing mental health support is that employers can help eradicate the stigma that drives employees to remain silent about mental illness.

Strategies for Supporting Employee Mental Health

Facilitating mental health programs is only half the battle. It’s also important to:

  • Train managers and supervisors on identifying signs of mental illness in returning employees.
  • Develop health and safety protocols for mitigating COVID-19 risks, so returning employees can feel safer about coming back to the jobsite. 
  • Encourage employees suffering from mental illness to seek treatment instead of keeping it secret or refusing intervention.
  • Incorporate your commitment to supporting employee mental health into your company culture. 
  • Inform returning employees of the mental health resources available to them and schedule check-ins to monitor their progress.

It can also be helpful to know what other employers, even those such as large corporations, are doing to address mental illness during the COVID-19 crisis. 

For example, Chevron has given its employees access to licensed counselors who can help them deal with negative emotions they might be experiencing due to COVID-19. 

Culligan Water, meanwhile, has expanded its wellness program to include free self-care videos, well-being calls from managers, stress management activities, live meditation sessions, activities to enhance morale, and one-on-one health coaching for employees and their spouses.

Also, as small businesses start to reopen, many decision-makers say that access to affordable solutions that support employees’ physical and mental well-being will be more important.

Financial Considerations

Each business is unique, so the financial costs associated with mental health support programs vary by employer. Typically, cost considerations involve assessing the mental health needs, preferences, and risk factors of your employee population, along with utilization probabilities (to estimate ROI). This process includes determining losses and solutions. 

“The impending impact [of mental illness] on a company results in high turnover, loss productivity, and job performance issues, which lead to business losses,” said George W. Martin, Jr., president and CEO of CorpCare Associates, in an email to The Balance. “The employer can assess these losses based upon benefit claims and their human resource reporting, and accept that without prevention/intervention programs, these losses will remain an organizational liability, as employees are fallible human beings.”

Martin, Jr. adds, “EAP services cost [employers] less on a monthly basis than a cup of coffee and return to the employer the value of a steak dinner. Ensure though that what is purchased is a full service EAP model, as some EAP forms are suspect.” 

Other cost considerations include:

  • Getting buy-in from stakeholders, including management, employees, mental health professionals, and employee benefits providers. For instance, ask your employees what they can afford to contribute to the program (if applicable) and obtain cost estimates from service providers.
  • The extent, constraints, and flexibility of your budget. For example, is there room for negotiation?

Aiming for a Mutual Win

Poor mental health has steep consequences, including lack of productivity at work, absenteeism, and emotional, mental, and physical disorders.

Economically speaking, across the U.S., serious mental illness causes $193.2 billion in lost earnings each year.

With the COVID-19 pandemic taking its toll emotionally, mentally, and financially on the U.S. workforce, employees need all the aid they can get—especially those returning from quarantine, furlough, leave, and remote workspaces. 

By offering mental health support, you can help employees better recognize and address their psychological and physiological issues, adopt a healthy lifestyle, and improve job performance—ultimately increasing the bottom line.