The Pandemic, Mental Health and Employee Benefits

Jeff Myhre | | Employee Benefits Communication

looking out for employees' mental health can improve recruitment and retentionNot everyone has had COVID-19, but the nasty little bug has affected everyone. Economic shut downs, job losses, fear of social interaction – while craving social interaction – and swinging between horror and numbness over climbing death tolls create high levels of stress. And stress is a huge mental health problem that's creeping into conversations around employee benefits.

This doesn't come as a surprise, really. Suicides and missed medical treatments are going to tick up if they haven't already. One argument made in favor of opening the economy up is that the cure can't be worse than the disease. With more than 154,000 lives already taken by the virus, we're a long way from that. The point is that both the disease and our reactions to it can have lethal effects and, even if those effects aren't lethal, they can be harmful.

9/11 and Lasting Mental Health Consequences

I've had a little prior experience with this sort of thing. I was at home in New York City on 9/11. From the front steps to my house, I could see the plume of smoke from the Pile for days. I worked three blocks from the World Trade Center for more than five years. The sharp, sudden blow to the city was different than the long, creeping attack of the virus, but the psychic responses are much the same.

having conversations around mental health are importantAfter 9/11, New Yorkers drank and smoked more, and we weren't teetotalers to begin with. The use of other drugs, both illicit and prescription, shot up too. People ordered more desserts in restaurants along with the extra-fatty, salty specialties of the house. Eating and drinking to excess are common ways of managing stress. We also saw a rise in PTSD.

Since mental health is nowhere near as well addressed by benefits as physical ailments, it should come as no surprise that there was an increase in unmet mental health care needs (UMHCN). BMC Public Health stated, “Slightly more than one-third (34.2%) of study participants reported an UMHCN [...] Attitudinal UMHCN was common among those not using mental health services, particularly those with relatively severe mental health symptoms. Cost-related UMHCN was significantly associated with a lack of health insurance but not service usage.” People suddenly needed mental health care and didn't get it.

In this case, the mental health effects of the pandemic are more predictable. And because this is a gradual accumulation of negative influences, we can better anticipate those needs and develop ways to address them. This must happen now because, as a Well Being Trust report states, "we can expect the same kind of rise in suicides and drug abuse that 9/11 sparked."

Begin Where You Are

Unless your organization offers nothing at all in the way of mental health care, the best place to start is to work with what you've got. Your broker can walk you through what you have, what you can improve and what you may want to consider adding. Then, you have to communicate what the new employee benefits are. With open enrollment approaching for many, the opportunity for tackling that is here.

We as a species don't do a good job of talking about mental health problems. “Mental illness, me? Are you crazy?” But it needs to be addressed. COVID-19 has given us an excuse to talk about and normalize the conversation around it. This is something the world hasn't seen since the Spanish Flu back in 1918. No matter how tough people think they are, this is new territory, and it's made it okay to talk about the anxiety and fears everyone is experiencing.

Getting from Here to There

telehealth is helping promote mental healthUnlike many physical problems, mental health issues and telemedicine readily go hand in hand. A lot of what mental health professionals do is talk. Secure video chats are almost perfect for this. If your benefits package already includes telemedicine for mental health, highlight it in your open enrollment communications. If you don't have opt-in options available, you can provide workers with free resources or recommended apps and services.

Of course, you can also add to the benefits you offer. In these uncertain economic times, that's easier said than financially done, but it should be seriously considered. The investment might pay off through improved productivity, since links have been found between improved mental health and improved productivity. One 2019 WHO study found, "depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US$ 1 trillion each year in lost productivity." And that was before the global pandemic struck.

Even if your organization isn't in a position to provide added benefits or to expand those you already have, you can make your department the go-to place for mental health resources. Since I'm a New Yorker, I'm most familiar with what's available here. Many of these resources are free or at minimal cost. Make sure your staff know that you know where they can get help.

Employee Benefits and Offboarding

The pandemic has put as many as 45 million out of work and, while the figure may not be precise, the order of magnitude is about right. Most Americans get their health insurance (including mental health coverage) through their jobs. No job means no insurance. COBRA attempts to keep people covered, but most who lose their jobs can't afford it. The Affordable Care Act also helps to a degree. Most people can get coverage, sometimes at a subsidized rate. But many of those plans have minimal mental health coverage, so users may want to shop around on the exchange.

If you're in the tough spot of needing to let workers go due to the pandemic, making clear to departing employees just what their options and coverages are has never been more important. Utilizing video in offboarding communications can help illuminate the intricacies around their altered benefits options. What they face is difficult and every bit of help and advice you can provide along the way can help ease the burden on their mental health.

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