Erin Erickson, MA 13 articles

Many employers remain concerned about the health of their employees as the pandemic continues. Nine out of 10 surveyed by McKinsey & Company revealed that they know COVID-19 is affecting their workforce’s mental health and productivity.

Employees are also experiencing a new wave of stress and anxiety as they’ve started to return to in-person work. At least one-third, according to McKinsey & Company, believe that on-site work will create a negative impact on their health and well-being, with continued concerns over safety and flexible scheduling. Fewer than one in 10 describe their workplaces as completely free of mental health stigma, possibly leading to delays in seeking care.

Employers are listening, with 70% saying they’re taking concrete actions to improve employee well-being, satisfaction and productivity by expanding their benefits and offering more resources.

As more people transition back to in-person work, combating the stigma associated with mental health, along with offering access to simple, easy, accessible resources and care, will help struggling employees continue to recover.

Experts from UnityPoint Behavioral Health, our health care system partner in Des Moines, and HealthPartners UnityPoint Health, our Iowa health insurance plan, weigh in on what actions employers can take to cultivate inclusive workplaces supportive of mental health and well-being now and post-pandemic.

These actions include:

  • Listening and being flexible
  • Addressing mental health stigma
  • Offering and promoting helpful resources
  • Training leaders to recognize addiction and equip employees with the right tools

Rethinking staff productivity and flexibility

One thing employees are worried about as many return to in-person work is having a flexible work schedule, according to McKinsey & Company.

"Flexible work schedules help employees continue to meet financial obligations and care for their children, themselves or family members," says Joel Spoonheim, Senior Director of Worksite Health and Well-being Products at HealthPartners. "Workers depend on care providers who are often in short supply and are closed sporadically. Rising costs and care volatility can worsen mental health issues and negatively affect productivity. Employers should focus on building robust teams that can flex and allow employees to adjust their work times to meet their needs and to take time off for self-care."

Part of this process involves, Spoonheim adds, having open conversations with employees about what matters to them and how to balance that with their work priorities.

"The pandemic made us all realize as a country how fragile life is, and for employers, that involved rethinking work-life balance," adds Spoonheim. "Ultimately, understanding what matters to your employees is not only the right thing to do for them, but it’s also the right thing to do for your bottom line because it increases productivity and engagement."

Christy Aquino, Employee Assistance Program Coordinator and Eating Disorder Therapist at UnityPoint Health – St Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids, agrees.

"Stress weighs you down, drains your energy, weakens your health and invites you to be cranky," she says. "It can be brought on by relational causes: arguing, division and bitterness. There are also excessive causes: overworking, overplaying or overspending. And there are deficiencies: not getting enough rest, nutrition or exercise. Any of these stressors set us up to be irritable. If employers aren’t addressing mental health concerns and self-care, they aren’t getting to the root of the problem."

When employees have time for self-care, it helps boost immunity, sleep and eating well, and reduces aches and pains, according to Spoonheim.

"Self-care is incredibly restorative, giving us time to work out, become friends and connect with others, all while improving overall health and well-being and productivity," he adds. "It’s vital for employers to give their employees the ability to take an active role in protecting their own well-being and happiness."

Reduce mental health stigma to create an inclusive workplace

As the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic have become more overwhelming, there’s no better way to help your employees proactively build resilience and prevent burnout than by creating an atmosphere that reduces mental health stigma.

"Open and honest conversations about mental health among all groups, including employers, are vital to start to move the needle," says Amanda Schara, Director of Behavioral Health Services at UnityPoint Health – Allen Hospital in Waterloo. "The lack of open and honest conversations is what keeps us stuck. Our solutions to problems are only as good as how well we define the real issues in front of us. To be successful, we need open and honest conversations to get to the heart of the issue."

Employers play a big role in making it OK for their employees to be open about how they’re feeling, adds Spoonheim, and it’s those conversations, starting at the top, with leadership, that can break down walls – leading people to reach out for help when they need it.

Building a workplace culture open to mental health conversations

"By openly sharing our stories, we create meaningful relationships and support systems," he says. "Having a good, trusted friend at work is a major driver of retention and engagement. Pervasive mental health stigmas undermine connections with others, exacerbate loneliness, and reduce trust, information sharing, creativity and productivity. Low mental health also negatively impacts physical health. Leaders can enhance employee wellness and productivity during COVID-19 by encouraging respectful listening, showing empathy and taking the perspective of others."

A key resource to help employees do just that is the Iowa Healthiest State Initiative’s Make It OK program. HealthPartners UnityPoint Health partnered with the Iowa Healthiest State Initiative in 2019 to bring Make It OK resources, support and tools to Iowa employees.

"The Make It OK program's interactive materials and toolkit are easy to deploy, and they help people feel empowered to seek care," Spoonheim adds.

Aquino says the Healthiest State Initiative's Make It OK program is critical to educating and informing our communities about mental health. "The Make It OK program helps people talk about mental health in an open, honest manner, which reduces stigma. Speaking up and communicating about their thoughts and feelings make people realize that they’re not alone."

Comprehensively supporting mental health through your health plan

Employers now, more than ever, are thinking comprehensively about how they can support the mental health of their workforce not only by encouraging open conversations but through their health plan.

"It’s important to ask your broker what your health insurance plan can do to provide support – whether it’s through telehealth options, digital condition management tools available conveniently online at their fingertips, an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and ensuring you have a broad network of providers that offer mental health care," says Becky Woody, President at HealthPartners UnityPoint Health. "Creating a broad web of resources is key, and then promoting them on a regular basis is equally vital to ensure awareness."

UnityPoint Health's expanded telehealth options help reach the broader community, which includes rural areas, making mental health care more accessible when people need it – whether they're at work, home or somewhere else.

"We collectively see the community's needs and have worked to create faster access by opening spaces like mental health walk-in clinics or by adding more crisis and telehealth appointments to our clinics," adds Schara. "We continue to come up with accommodating solutions."

HealthPartners UnityPoint Health combines broad mental health care options with fully insured and self-insured health plans that also include behavioral health digital conditional management tools such as Omada Mind and MyStrength. MyStrength offers personalized content designed around an individual’s mental health needs, and Omada offers personalized coaching to help people better manage their condition. And that’s in addition to an EAP and telephonic behavioral health case management support for at-risk members identified through claims.

EAPs that offer robust, comprehensive support for not only stress or mental health concerns, but a wide variety of issues such as child care, elder care, legal and financial help, and more, can ensure employees are equipped to handle any situation they might face.

"Employee mental health has always been a need – but it has gained more attention and focus now," says Schara. "Organizations need to have a robust and comprehensive approach and consider many options when it comes to ways to support their team members. This is a great opportunity for all of us to pay attention to our employees’ needs, which aren’t new but are exacerbated due to a pandemic."

Help connect employees to addiction treatment and support

Employers should also not only address how they can support mental health concerns, but also substance abuse – which has increased in Iowa and across the country throughout the pandemic.

Binge drinking reached a record high in Iowa in 2020. Drug-related and alcohol-related drug overdose deaths were 17% to 18% higher in 2020 than in 2010, and opioid overdose deaths were 36% higher.

And Dr. Rober Lizer, an Addiction Medicine, Ambulatory Medical Director and IIAR Medical Director for UnityPoint Clinic in Peoria, Illinois, echoes these statistics. He says that UnityPoint Health has certainly seen an increase in substance use disorders throughout the pandemic – both in quantity, frequency of substance use and in new users.

"The increased isolation of people working from home and enhanced financial strain are just some of the factors that have contributed to this increase," Dr. Lizer adds. "Access to recovery programs and support is very important. It’s ideal for employers to provide employee mental health and well-being programs to assist them with coping in healthy ways and handle the stressors of work and life with the pandemic. Also, it’s important for employers to help employees find access to substance use programs and to reduce the barriers they might have for treatment."

Schara relays that mental health and substance abuse are at the forefront of many conversations at UnityPoint Health.

"We are taking a hard look at where we have gaps in our substance abuse services and working to find solutions," she says. "For employers, having leaders educated on how to spot and have conversations about substance abuse with their team members is a great start to getting people the help they need. After we recognize there is a substance abuse concern, it is vital to have an EAP for employees to use."

Both Schara and Dr. Lizer agree that employers should also work together with their health plan, creating a long-term strategy to support their employees' health.

"The pandemic has forced employers to not only take action but come up with sustainable solutions that will last," adds Woody. "Offering expanded mental health benefits is essential to employee productivity, success at work and overall retention. The future of work is flexible, and it has to be open to emphasizing mental health and well-being."

In 2015, UnityPoint Health and HealthPartners joined forces to offer a new health care and fully insured and self-insured insurance option for small and large employers in Iowa. HealthPartners UnityPoint Health combines a local leader in health care and a proven insurance leader. The result — better plans that simplify your employees’ lives.