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updated: 7/15/2020 3:12 PM

Supporting employee mental health during and after the pandemic

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  • Mark Friedman

    Mark Friedman


Nearly half of Americans say their mental health has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. It's no wonder, as many Americans are stuck inside, out of work and facing a global pandemic unlike anything seen in a century.

As Illinois and other states begin to reopen, workers will face additional anxiety about their safety at work and the safety of their loved ones. How will employers support their workers' mental health needs in these uncertain times?

Mental illness before COVID-19

Even before COVID-19, one in five Americans experienced mental illness annually. When it came to anxiety, one in three experienced a disorder in their lifetime. And the majority were not receiving any treatment. The problems Americans are facing with mental health are only expected to worsen, and that should be especially concerning for employers.

Trouble at work

Poor mental health takes a toll on workers and their performance. According to the CDC, depression interferes with a person's ability to complete physical job tasks about 20% of the time and reduces cognitive performance about 35% of the time.

The pandemic ushered in even more anxiety. Work-related concerns have left more than 40% of employees feeling hopeless, burned out or exhausted during the pandemic, according to SHRM. More than half of workers say they have often had little or no interest in doing things since COVID-19 began.

Barriers to care

Accessing care for mental health issues remains a challenge. In 2018, less than half (44%) of Americans under age 65 who reported experiencing a mental illness saw a mental health professional for their problem.

Some people do not seek care because mental health conditions are stigmatized. This is especially true among men, who may have been socialized to avoid showing their feelings.

Those who seek treatment often struggle to find in-network or affordable options, a challenge for lower-income people. An average counseling session often costs $100-$200 per session.

Even those with quality insurance coverage and an ability to seek treatment may have trouble getting an appointment because of a nationwide shortage of mental health providers. There are an average of nine psychiatrists per 100,000 people, and half of the country does not have enough practitioners to meet the needs of their area.

What employers can do

An employer benefit is only worthwhile if it's used. Often, employers "check the box" on mental health with an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) baked into their benefits plan. But few employees actually use their EAP, which can be difficult to navigate.

Virtual mental health services are a new option that can help employees by providing them with access to counselors via phone or video chat. Other employee solutions may include training, workshops and wellness programs.

Improving employees' mental health doesn't happen overnight. Employers need to invest in employee mental health year-round with benefits and programs that employees will actually use.

• Mark Friedman MD, FACEP, FACP, is the chief medical officer at First Stop Health. Learn more at .