Sandra Kuhn, partner and national leader for behavioral health consulting at Mercer opened Rethink Benefits and Whil’s mental health summit “Addressing Your Employees’ Professional, Personal & Parenting Needs: Bringing Visibility to the Invisible” with a strong and timely message for employers.

Careful and thoughtful attention to mental-health supports will be key to the success of employers’ strategies for returning to the workplace in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Sandra Kuhn. She explained that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a marked increase in anxiety and mental health disorders among American adults, and employers have a big role to play in better supporting their workers’ mental health needs as offices open and employees re-adjust to onsite working arrangements.

As Senior Vice President of Rethink Benefits Mike Civello said in introducing Kuhn, “Claims are up. It’s time to take a step back, and look at employees’ lives well before they need clinical intervention.”

By the numbers

Kuhn revealed that 41% of adults reported anxiety and depression in January 2021, compared to 11% in 2019. And 32% of adults reported new or increased use of substances to cope with the stress of the pandemic.
“Some of the behaviors that have developed during the pandemic will likely present for some form of treatment in the future,” she said. “The need to continue evolving [mental health] programs is probably going to be with us for a good two to three years.”
Moving forward, 49% of adults continue to fear they will contract COVID-19 or that their families will become ill. Most important for employers, 53% of workers are experiencing burnout. When planning a return to a physical workplace, it’s essential to consider employee mental health, she said.

The fear caused by the virus is compounded by social unrest, concerns about finances and job security and isolation. Caregivers have been uniquely impacted, as have minorities, women and children.

Returning to the office

Kuhn suggests that employers first consider their strategy for office re-entry. Will the strategy rely on work from home, a full return to the office, or a hybrid solution? Each strategy has its pros and cons.
For example, working from home gives workers continued flexibility, but doesn’t address feelings of isolation. Hybrid work environments also offer flexibility, but can breed uncertainty. Fully retuning to a physical space reduces isolation, but could increase stress. After making that decision, employers can implement strategies that make the transition easier for everyone.

“No matter what work situation you have in your future, people are going to continue to come together…with a myriad of different experiences,” Kuhn said. “There is potential for there to be conflict or a marked differentiation in how people have experienced the last 12 to 15 months.”

One area that Kuhn emphasized was offering skill-based programs that help employees actively learn about mental health and teach managers how to actively support their teams. Additional programs like family support and financial wellness can also help employees manage the stress of coming back to work and the family and lifestyle changes that it may entail.

Plan of action

Overall, Kuhn said key actions for employers include:

  • Understand your baseline by confirming existing coverage and gaps in coverage.
  • Actively listen to employees by conducting virtual focus groups.
  • Address racial inequality by actively addressing minority mental-health challenges and bringing in vendor partners to increase diversity resources.
  • Offer transparent communication so employees know how to access resources.
  • Support your workforce by looking for ways to keep employees connected to reduce isolation. Equip mangers to help employees deal with stress.

“It’s important to acknowledge it’s going to be different,” Kuhn said. “There’s an element of loss coming back to the office. Employers can get started with a mental-health program for the future, spanning that gap between prevention and treatment.”