There is no better time than the present to make mental health a priority. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every person’s daily life in a variety of ways, including never-before-seen levels of social isolation and generalized anxiety. A recent Time magazine article entitled, “COVID-19’s Psychological Toll: Mental Distress Among Americans Has Tripled During the Pandemic compared to 2018” cites a recently published (but not yet peer-reviewed) academic paper by Twenge & Joiner (2020) that found roughly 70 percent of Americans experienced moderate-to-severe mental distress last month – triple the rate seen in 2018. Also, nearly 30 percent of U.S. adults fit the criteria for serious mental illness, up from 3.4 percent in 2018. Last month also saw a nearly 900 percent increase in calls to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) compared to a year ago. Not surprisingly, other research by the Society of Human Resources found that women, younger workers, and those living with vulnerable people were more severely mentally distressed.
What is Important for Employers to Know
What is important for employers to know is that the COVID-19 pandemic is not just a physical health crisis – it is also a mental health crisis. The range of psychological reactions to this worldwide pandemic is as varied as the people who populate our planet. Employers have reported workers who are emotionally defiant, who refuse outright to comply with any safety directives…to the polar opposite reaction of workers being so emotionally terrified that they refuse to leave home at all. The entire range of emotions is to be expected – and is normal.
In March, The Harvard Business Review published an interview with David Kessler, the expert who co-wrote the best-selling book, On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss. In the HBR interview, Kessler compares feelings about COVID-19 with the collective grief that occurred after 9/11, a time when the world forever changed. A similar occurrence is happening now, and Kessler describes it is a form of grief. Grief comes in stages for people, the stages are not linear, and they may not all happen in the same order. Some people are in denial, some are angry, some are in bargaining, some are in depression, and others have reached acceptance. Thus, it is not surprising that employers would find workers to be at different stages as they mentally process all the implications of the new normal we find ourselves in. These stages of processing will continue for employees even after reopening workplaces.
How Employers Can Support Employees’ Mental Health
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) released a series of “COVID-19 Quick Employment Tips” videos. The first is about supporting workers’ mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. The recommendations for employers are to:
- Build awareness and a supportive work culture;
- Provide accommodations to employees;
- Offer employees assistance; and
- Ensure access to treatment.
The video features the Employer Assistance and Resource Network (EARN) on Disability Inclusion’s Mental Health Toolkit, which can be found here. On April 1, 2020, EARN recorded a webinar called “The ADA at Work: Consideration for COVID-19”. Topics included the implications of the pandemic on disability-related inquiries, medical examinations, and requirements for reasonable accommodations for telework.
The second video highlights resources and information about reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and COVID-19 from the Job Accommodation Network (JAN). JAN provides free consulting services for all employers, regardless of the size of an employer’s workforce. Services include one-on-one consultation about all aspects of job accommodations, including the accommodation process, accommodation ideas, product vendors, referral to other resources, and ADA compliance assistance. The DOL, in conjunction with JAN, developed a Toolkit in 2019 to help employers and employees understand their rights and responsibilities under the ADA.
Employee Self-Care Resources
As part of building awareness for workers about mental health, employers may choose to educate their workforce on free resources available to assist workers in need. The Centers for Disease Control has a webpage dedicated to coping with stress during pandemics. One of the premier organizations for mental health in the U.S. is the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). There are 500 chapters across the country that offer free support groups, as well as patient and family educational classes:
NAMI has also issued a guide for coping during the pandemic. In their guide, self-care recommendations include:
- Managing how much and what information one consumes
- Following healthy daily routines
- Getting exercise and movement
- Practicing relaxation
- Doing meaningful things
- Staying connected with others
- Finding a mental health community
- Connecting spiritually
The guide also offers a Frequently Asked Questions section and other helpful tools and resources.
With all the resources available to both employees and employers, including those provided by Employers Council, we can overcome the challenges of COVID-19. Our workforces can become more inclusive and diverse. Our communities can emerge stronger and healthier if we can be kind to our minds and to others’.