Wellness in the Workplace and Support for Employees

May is Mental Health Month. First observed in 1949, Mental Health Month is intended to increase awareness of the essential role mental health and wellness plays in finding that crucial support for employees — and how many millions of people suffer in silence.

Given the challenges and difficulties of the last year, there is no better time for employers and benefit advisers to focus on strengthening mental health support for employees. The crises of the last year have taken a toll on mental health and wellness in the workplace. Even as employers and employees undertake a return to normalcy, the effects linger. According to research, Americans’ mental health and emotional well-being have plunged to new lows over recent months—lower than at any time since 2001. [1]

After more than a year of chronic strain, millions of employees are feeling depleted. Focus has dropped by as much as 60% [2] across all ages in the workplace. While the signs are obvious now, we’ve learned that chronic workplace stress and the need to address mental health [3] were building before the pandemic.

Research [4] points to the coming mental health revolution in the workplace as a market shift, not a trend: employees are in need of better support and want coverage that supports wellness in the workplace.

Employers should, too. Here’s why.

Breaking the silence to build wellness in the workplace

There was a time when, in many jobs, workers could leave work at the door at the end of the day. Not today: in an increasingly connected and digitally driven world, the “always-on” workplace culture has become pervasive. In 2019, the World Health Organization recognized burnout as an occupational disorder, defining it as a “state of vital exhaustion.” The historic stress of the last year, on top of the increasing prevalence of burnout, has led to measurable increases in anxiety and psychological distress. [5]

Yet the culture of silence in the workplace around mental health continues, despite the stress and turmoil of the last year. Historically many benefits have focused on physical wellness. Employees who were struggling with mental health issues may have remained silent out of fear of being considered weak, perceived as complainers, or of being passed over for opportunities; perhaps they feared that opening up about their struggles would cost them their jobs.

To add to the pressure, workplaces across industries have long embraced the ideal of a successful employee as one who can compartmentalize stress and isn’t affected by outside circumstances. The mental health revolution looks to topple this ideal to change how mental health and wellness in the workplace are viewed.

To navigate the coming mental health revolution, employers should foster an environment that brings conversations about mental health into the open and destigmatizes the instinct to hide chronic stress. This is easier when the right benefit mix for employees is in place.

Championing better mental health in the workplace

During and after Mental Health Month, here are some steps that benefits advisers can suggest—and employers can take—toward destigmatizing discussions of mental health in the workplace.

Seek buy-in from the top. Efforts to support better workplace wellness need the support and buy-in of leadership and management to be truly successful. Championship can include many actions, from modeling healthy behavior to introducing new benefits. Advisers and HR leaders can work together on appropriate strategies for the organization.

Listen and learn. It’s important to understand the current state of wellness in the workplace to grasp what emerging needs should be addressed. Survey tools and communications can help with insights into where employees are struggling as well as contribute to greater openness.

Acknowledge. After a year as painful as this period, empathy is powerful. When work has been a constant while so much is in flux, employer empathy goes a long way toward helping employees manage stress. Empathy can take many forms, from enhanced benefits to encouraging employees to use their PTO and more.

Enhance or expand. Many companies have expanded access to virtual benefits or other support for employees for mental health and well-being during the last year. This is key as voids in many primary plans make accessing effective care for mental health support difficult or costly because of high deductibles or out-of-network costs. Employee assistance programs may not offer access to the right care services, or employees in need of support may not know where to turn.

Embrace a proactive approach to wellness.

Employees across the workforce can benefit from a proactive approach to wellness in the workplace. This can include expanded coverage for prescriptions and provider visits as well as access to support for everyday needs, like difficulty sleeping, relationship conflicts, caregiving stress and more. When effective support for employees helps them manage stress in healthier ways, they can bring their full selves to the challenges of their jobs.

Mental Health Month is a timely opportunity for employers and benefit advisers to look at the lessons of the last year and make changes that will enhance support for employees and contribute to better wellness in the workplace.

ArmadaCare recently introduced WellPak, a complementary benefits plan that provides all-in-one access to coverage and support for better mental health and well-being. It includes access to a full spectrum of care for everyday to critical needs with Connect & Thrive. WellPak can be layered over the primary plan to enhance coverage for select employees or a broad population. Learn more.

[1] Gallup, 2021

[2] Mental Health Index, Total Brain, 2021

[3] Forbes, 2020 and MetLife, 2029

[4] McKinsey & Co., 2020

[5] Pew Research, 2021 and McKinsey, 2020

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