Harnessing employee engagement to support mental health

May 26, 2021

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Silver linings during the COVID-19 pandemic were few and far between. But research shows that our collective experiment in working during a pandemic has yielded some surprising benefits, with employee engagement skyrocketing over the past year.

Still, employee mental health has worsened significantly, as the pandemic placed new stresses on an already hyper-productive workforce. The question for employers is this: Is there a way to harness these new levels of engagement to help employees get the mental health support they need?

COVID-19 and mental health impacts

There’s no denying the immense levels of stress employees faced at the beginning of the pandemic. Many people transitioned to working from home and had to deal with the challenge of balancing their own workload with being a full-time teacher or caretaker.

The emotional stress from the pandemic added to an already mounting mental health crisis. “Issues of mental health have been building for at least the past five years, particularly among Gen Zs and millennials,” said Dr. Philip Levendusky of McLean Hospital, a world-renowned psychiatric treatment center. “During the pandemic, life turned on its head for young people.”

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People aged 18 to 24 accounted for 56% of those reporting symptoms of anxiety disorder and/or depressive disorders during the pandemic.

Source: KFF study, The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use, 2021.
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A better way to keep your employees healthy and productive

Surprising increase in employee engagement 

And yet, according to global HR analyst Josh Bersin, many workers found a “new sense of purpose and mission” during the pandemic.

“People looked at work as a refuge from the risks of everyday life and focused on the good they could do for their customers or teammates,” he said in a recent HR Trends podcast. “In fact, we’re finding skyrocketing engagement among employees, even with the skyrocketing stress. Why would you be highly engaged with your job, and still highly stressed? It’s because the value of your work has just gone up.”

This combination of stress and engagement creates an opportunity — and a responsibility — for employers to provide more support to their workforce. “When the value of your work goes up, your company should be doing more to take care of you. HR people need to look very, very strategically at the benefits they offer,” Bersin said.

The same work-from-home technology that helped employees stay engaged with work can be used to deliver the integrated mental health benefits stressed-out workers need and deserve.

“Maybe we shouldn’t even be calling them ‘benefits,’” said Swapnil Prabha, Unum’s Vice President of Digital Offerings. “Because they really are essentials. We are definitely seeing a lot more people willing to seek help with their mental health than we have seen before, and related to that we're seeing wide-scale adoption of digital and virtual technology in the mental health delivery space.”

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Behavioral health solutions 

Digital-forward behavioral health offerings can solve three main issues when it comes to getting employees the care they need, according to Prabha. 
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    Greater access to resources and mental health providers

    "There are not enough therapists or in-patient treatment resources to meet the need," Prabha said. Levendusky echoed the point, saying, "I’ve seen young people spending five to seven days in the emergency room waiting for a psych bed to open up." According to Prabha, offering self-service educational resources or virtual coaching support for those with less severe behavioral health challenges can take some of the pressure off the system and free up more intensive resources for those with more serious issues. "The rise of digital and workforce technology adoption has really allowed us to solve that problem of access for employees," Prabha said.

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    Easy benefits education
    A digital behavioral health offering also makes it easy for employers to educate their workforce about the benefit. Through email communications and engaging online materials, employers can signal that mental health is important, that seeking treatment will not be stigmatized and that using the benefit is encouraged.
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    Digital integrated experience

    Finally, behavioral health programs can use technology to help employees navigate the often-confusing journey of finding appropriate treatment. "Employers need to provide a holistic, integrated experience that helps guide employees to the treatment options that are appropriate for them," Prabha said. This kind of experience can also provide employers with the hard data they need to see whether their program is being used, and whether it’s working – all while protecting employee confidentiality.

"When we get mental health parity in terms of lowering the stigma and having good, open, fact-based decisions," Prabha said, "that's when I think we really start to change the game when it comes to issues of mental health."