COVID-19's Impact on Employee Mental Health Continues

Forced isolation. Trauma caused by loss of life, jobs and normal routines. Uncertainty about the future, not to mention anxiety about becoming infected with the virus. These are just a few of the ways the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the mental health of employees and plan participants.

COVID-19 Impact on Employee Mental Health Continues

In June, Mental Health America announced that more than 88,000 people in the United States had developed anxiety or depression as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. A survey of people with substance abuse disorders showed that 20% had increased substance use since the pandemic began.

Employers, recognizing the growing need among the workforce, have stepped up their mental health benefits.

In the U.S., more than one-third of organizations have either added (17%) or are considering adding (21%) components to their existing mental health benefits. Already 12% of employers have added telepsychiatry, allowing employees to access mental health services virtually, 9% have reduced or eliminated cost sharing for mental health benefits and 6% have relaxed or eliminated eligibility requirements.

In Canada, more than one-half of organizations have either added (28%) or are considering adding (24%) components to their existing mental health benefits. Currently, 10% of employers have added telepsychiatry, 5% have relaxed or removed eligibility requirements and 6% have eliminated cost sharing.

In an interview in the June issue of Benefits Magazine, Andy Johnson, fund administrator of the Teamster Center Services (TCS) Fund in New York City, predicted that the pandemic would continue to have a ripple effect on mental and behavioral health even after it wanes.

What are the issues employers and plan sponsors should look out for? Johnson said the forced isolation can cause stress, depression, anxiety, irritability, insomnia, frustration and anger. It also greatly exacerbates substance abuse. These issues won’t suddenly disappear when the economy restarts, Johnson said.

“Also, I suspect that this pandemic will cause many people to reassess their lives, their careers, their commutes and even their relationships based on what they have just been through, and this will have an effect on their ability to function in their various life roles,” he added.

Johnson predicted that there will be a surge in requests for referrals for substance abuse treatment after people begin returning to work. That’s because employees who significantly increased substance use during the pandemic are likely to continue to misuse those substances. In addition, others may have put off seeking help during the pandemic until they were sure that they had a job to return to and health benefits to cover the treatment.

“Employers and union officials also need to be ready to read the signs of a behavioral health disorder because there is a strong chance that the whole spectrum of behavioral health conditions will emerge within the workforce and in workers’ families in the time ahead,” Johnson said.

He identified the following signs to look for when interacting with employees and plan participants:

  • General appearance: Does the employee appear to look less healthy and/or more unkempt than prior to the pandemic?
  • Mood swings/erratic behavior: Has there been a shift to a different personality?
  • Irritability: Is the employee becoming easily frustrated or angered?
  • Interactions with co-workers: Has there been a change in how the employee acts around other workers, for example, isolating and avoiding interactions with others?
  • Sudden requests for time off or frequently taking sick days: Is there an uptick in illnesses or unexpected time off?
  • Changes in eating and sleeping behaviors: Is the employee eating much less or much more than usual? Do they look tired?
  • Lack of focus: Does the employee sometimes appear confused or out of sorts?
  • Anxiety: Is the employee expressing greater than usual fear, worry and anxiety?
  • Productivity decline: Does the employee seem to be less productive than before?
  • Suspicions of substance use/misuse: Is the employee showing signs of alcohol/drug abuse?

“It’s important that both employers and plan sponsors take a very pro-employee (pro-participant) attitude during the time ahead and accept that their people have been through a very traumatic event and things will be different for a while,” Johnson said. “I would also recommend that employers and plan sponsors respond with programs and policies that convey messages of ‘we care,’ ‘we support you’ and ‘we are here for you.’”

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Kathy Bergstrom, CEBS
Senior Editor, Publications at the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans

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