Employers show new concern about employees’ mental health

GGood mental health seemed a given to Kamini Cormier. Then came the pandemic. In 2020, when she was forced to isolate herself at home with her husband and teenage daughters, she began to feel pain all over her body. She thought she probably contracted COVID-19 and scheduled lab tests, and an online appointment with her doctor. But the results did not point to COVID. Her doctor told her something she never expected to hear: pent-up stress began to attack her body.

“I had to step up my mental health care,” said Cormier, 48, the western region business leader for technology practices at professional services firm Accenture. So she did something that a growing number of workers have felt more comfortable doing since the start of the pandemic: Cormier sought help from her mental health employer. She found an online therapist to meet weekly (paid by her employer) – and started using a special app from her employer that offered soothing music.

“People talk about mental health issues at work the way they previously talked about high cholesterol or diabetes,” Cormier says.

It will be time. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), nearly 53 million Americans—about one in five adults in the US—will experience some form of mental illness in 2020. And 27% of millennials who recently resigned say they did so because their job wasn’t good for their mental health, according to a recent Y-Pulse survey. Perhaps in response, some 39% of employers have updated their health plans since the start of the pandemic to expand access to mental health services, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2021 Employer Health Benefits Survey.

“Ten years ago, no one was talking about mental health in the workplace,” said Jessica Edwards, chief development officer at NAMI. But since the pandemic, more than half of Americans say it’s much easier to talk about their mental health problems.

The pandemic effect

Working Americans — and their employers — are finally beginning to understand that mental health care is just as important as physical health care. The mind is important. In what seemed unthinkable even a few years ago for a major corporation, Bank of America placed a full-page ad in the… Washington Post in June 2022: “We are encouraging open and ongoing conversations to help break the stigma surrounding mental health.” The ad read: “Our goal is to make sure our teammates get the resources they need, whether it’s professional guidance, training or tips for coping with stress.”

Promoting all aspects of wellness, including mental health, isn’t new to the company, said Sheri Bronstein, Bank of America’s chief human resources officer. “We listen, monitor and respond to changing needs,” she says. Through various programs and benefits, she says, “We support our teammates and their families through everyday challenges, critical moments and life events – including those we have all experienced and dealt with during the coronavirus pandemic.”

A third of working Americans say it is more acceptable now than it was before the pandemic to ask their employer for mental health support, according to a LinkedIn survey of 2,000 Americans in February 2022. And while 45% of Americans say they have a “mental health health” day off before the pandemic, some 65% of working Americans now say they would.

Finding allies in mental health

Cormier is one of them. She has also become an active volunteer member of Accenture’s mental health worker group. The program helps employees better understand the mental wellness resources offered by the company. Employees are encouraged to take a three-hour virtual training course that includes advice on how to respond when someone contacts them under stress.

Kamini Cormier with her family at Disneyland

Kamini Cormier

Cormier gained the confidence to openly discuss her mental health issues, in part because the Accenture CEO made it a priority in virtual meetings.

“For me, it’s a personal matter,” said Jimmy Etheredge, CEO of Accenture North America. “I have several family members who have struggled with mental health for a number of years. So it’s something I’ve always had a lot of passion for. It’s okay not to feel okay.”

If the pandemic has a silver lining, he says, this is how mental health discussions at so many companies have emerged from the shadows and to the light. He has ensured that Accenture has taken actions large and small to destigmatize those conversations.

For example, the company has established a “Mental Health Ally” program that consists of 9,500 employees, including Etheredge and its entire leadership team, who have received special training on how to support someone who asks for help.

An additional 170,000 Accenture employees have completed the “Thriving Mind” program to learn how to manage stress and improve their well-being. Those who completed the program reported an average increase of 8 to 11% in their ability to cope with stress, and nine out of 10 participants said they felt “significantly” better able to handle challenges in the workplace afterward. go, the company said.

Etheredge says it’s also up to him to consistently practice best business practices that support better mental health. Instead of 30-minute conference calls, he’s aiming for 25 minutes, to give time to get up and stretch, for those who have a second meeting scheduled during the hour. After years of habitually eating at his desk, he has also learned to go out for lunch. “I can say that without shame,” he says. And instead of sending business emails late at night, he uses time delay so they don’t get sent until the next morning.

“I want people to feel safe, seen and connected,” he says. “Our future growth depends on the well-being of our talent. We have to be aware and take care of the people we have.”

Still not a primary concern for all companies

While most HR professionals say that providing mental health services can improve workplace productivity and agree that it increases employee retention, employee mental health is not a top priority at many companies.

Less than a third of the 3,400 HR professionals surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management this spring said mental health is a primary concern in their company. “It’s going to be a priority, but not a top priority,” said Wendi Safstrom, president of the Society for Human Resource Management Foundation.

But according to one study, some companies may be withdrawing mental health services once employees go back to work. While 71% of employees say their company has increased its focus on mental health in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, only 25% say they have maintained that focus over the past year, according to a survey of 500 CEOs and 5,400 full-time employees in the US, Australia, Germany and the UK, through Headspace Health, a digital mental health platform.

How digital tools can help

Some positive steps also emerged from the survey. The use of digital mental health tools among U.S. workers, such as remote therapy apps and meditation apps, has doubled since 2020, according to the survey conducted in February and March 2022.

In 2020, insurance company The Hartford added more digital resources to its benefits plan to help employees with anxiety, including Daylight, a digital anti-anxiety app that teaches techniques to reframe negative thoughts and cope with difficult emotions. The company also improved concierge support that helps employees find treatment for mental health issues. In April, it added a new medical service provider that expanded access to therapy and counseling for employees and their family members.

“At The Hartford, we took a company-wide approach to remove stigma and create an open, inclusive environment,” said CEO Christopher Swift.

A mother’s story

Employers show new concern about employees' mental health

Caitlin Tregler with her family.

Caitlin Tregler

That may be one reason why Caitlin Tregler felt comfortable seeking mental health help.

Tregler, 33, is a claims team leader at The Hartford, who says she lives with social phobia — a form of extreme shyness that can cause her to withdraw from social interactions. It was made worse by the pandemic after she became pregnant and gave birth to her second child in the summer of 2020. She found comfort in leaning on colleagues and using company resources to support her own mental health.

She had an emergency cesarean section and had to stay in the hospital for an extra week due to complications before being allowed to go home. At the time, there was a lot of fear for a new mother because of COVID-19. Although she went to a therapist for her disorder, she soon realized — after she started working from home — that it was critical to expand her online therapy visits from biweekly to weekly.

She worked exclusively from home until February 2022 and now goes to the office two days a week. She recently became involved with a group of staff that focuses on removing stigma surrounding mental health support.

“I don’t think I could work for a company that isn’t as supportive,” she says.

The pandemic taught Tregler the hard way how to take care of her own mental wellbeing — including requesting the occasional “mental health” days “to reset myself,” she says.

This is exactly what positive mental wellbeing so often requires: the occasional reset.

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