World Reimagined

Making Mental Health a Workplace Priority

A distressed woman sitting at a computer

The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in Americans spending the last year dealing with financial difficulties, long periods of self-quarantine, social distancing, a lack of in-person learning for students, and the general uneasiness that comes from not knowing when life will get back to some semblance of normal. And while the measures are necessary for tamping down the spread of the virus, mental health experts are increasingly voicing concern that these restrictions have set the country up for a wave of secondary effects. They point specifically to the fallout from increased alcohol abuse, addiction to opioids, and untreated depression and anxiety as the next crisis we will be facing.

Employers have responded by ramping up their mental health offerings to help employees deal with these issues. But what is becoming abundantly clear is that employees at different levels of their organizations have different perceptions, comfort levels, and even access to mental health services. Closing that gap is an essential next step in organizations being able to truly address the emotional wreckage from the pandemic. Not only do companies have to make sure that they offer help, but that they also put in measures that ensure workers at every level feel safe and secure accessing that help.

“Companies have been really vocal about the mental health offerings they’ve put in place during the pandemic, but they really need to go one step further to see what type of employee is using those services,” says Allison Walsh, vice president of Advanced Recovery Systems, a behavioral healthcare management company.

Her firm recently surveyed 2,000 Americans about their mental health during the pandemic to get a better understanding of the role that employers are playing. Participants were asked about their mental health over the prior six months and a staggering 75% reported experiencing mental health symptoms including anxiety and nervousness; stress; depression or loneliness; and anger. And while 64% of those surveyed said their company offers some type of mental health resource, there was a significant gap among the type of workers using them.

The survey showed that 70% of managers and above reported using mental health resources at their company compared with just 31% of lower-tier workers. Further, 32% of lower-tier workers were unsure if their insurance covered these services, compared with just 8% of managers who were unsure. And perhaps most worrisome, nearly 70% of managers and executives said they felt comfortable talking to their boss about a mental health issue, while just 48% of lower-tier workers felt that way.

“We know from our research that the number one reason why people won’t even pursue treatment is because they worry about what their employer is going to think or if they’re going to lose their job,” Walsh says. “This is what we hear every day and so we’re asking what are companies doing to encourage workers at all levels to access this care and feel comfortable doing so.”

Among the most effective strategies, says Walsh, is having the dialogue start in the C-suite. She points to Kim Lopdrup, the CEO of restaurant chain Red Lobster, as an example of this type of top-down approach. “He’s gotten on camera saying, if you need help, if someone in your family needs help, here’s what we offer and here’s where to turn,” she explains. “Leaders need to make it clear that if people are struggling it’s okay to reach out and that they’re not going to lose their job because of it.”

Some other ways companies can address this potential mental health crisis:

  • Make mental health an on-going conversation in the company. “It’s not just something you deal with during mental health awareness week,” Walsh says. “It needs to be part of the dialogue that happens continually.”
  • Be practical. Share information on the pathways to access mental health providers and services. Since workers are not in the workplace right now, this information needs to be shared during virtual town hall meetings or other communications with workers.
  • Make sure front-line and lower-tier employees hear about what behavioral health services your company has. “Managers are typically part of the conversation around these issues and they know what’s going on,” Walsh says. “Lower-tier and front-line workers usually are not, so companies have to make an extra effort to get this information to them and reinforce that it’s okay to not feel okay right now.”

If companies don’t get out in front of this growing mental health crisis, the consequences are going to be dire, Walsh says. “Organizations are going to wind up replacing their workforce,” she says. “If you’re not taking care of your people, your people won’t be taking care of your company.”

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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Susan Caminiti

Susan is a writer and senior editor whose work covers a wide range of business and social topics including corporate profiles, personal investing, entrepreneurship, health and wellness, work/life issues, and wealth management for both editorial and corporate clients. She is a former staff writer for Fortune magazine and her work appears in Fortune,, and in a variety of other print magazines.

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