In fall of 2019, a survey of more than 2,000 American workers, found that 39 percent struggle with mental health issues—from moderate distress to serious mental illness. Sixty-one percent had missed a day of work or knew someone who did because of a mental health issue.
According to Dan Jolivet, Ph.D, the Workplace Possibilities practice consultant for The Standard, an insurance and financial company that conducted the survey, one of the most discouraging findings was that most workers with mental health and substance use issues weren’t comfortable asking their employer for help.
“Their number one worry was that co-workers would find out or others might treat them differently or talk behind their backs,” Jolivet said. “They fear that they’ll be passed up for a promotion, viewed as weak, or fired,” he said.
These already concerning findings, of course, were prior to the pandemic. With increased stressors—like upended routines, isolation, and school and daycare closures—workers’ mental health has worsened.
A Rise in Mental Health Issues
Fifty-nine percent of private practice therapists recently surveyed by Lyra Health, a mental health benefits provider, reported a rise in their clients’ anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.
Lyra Health also examined anonymous data from thousands of their members, finding that halfway through April, thoughts of suicide or self-harm had increased to 16 percent–up from nine percent in January.
Renee Schneider, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and vice president of clinical quality at Lyra Health, has heard from providers of recent surges in trauma rates, PTSD symptoms in individuals with trauma histories, and substance use disorders.
“Just about everyone I know is experiencing some sort of sleep disturbance,” Schneider said. “Days bleed into nights.”
Helping Frontline Workers
Frontline healthcare workers, a group already struggling with higher rates of depression, burnout, substance use, and suicide, have been hit especially hard by the pandemic. In response, Stephanie Zerwas, Ph.D, founded Project Parachute, which provides free therapy to all frontline workers, including physicians, nurses, custodial staff, and management.
“I initially planned this as a small Chapel Hill effort, and it quickly ballooned,” said Zerwas, a psychologist in private practice in Chapel Hill, N.C., and an associate professor at UNC Psychiatry.
As of May, Project Parachute has 600 therapists across the country and will expand their free services to families of frontline workers.
“We’re not anticipating that everyone who comes to talk to a therapist might need a whole year of therapy,” Zerwas said. “Even just explaining what a traumatic stress response looks like and normalizing people’s experiences can be a powerful intervention… Giving them that psychological first aid can be a powerful shift in that person’s trajectory or life story.”
Moreover, because frontline workers value stoicism, “they’re especially in need of someone who can explain how emotions can bubble up under the surface and take over if you don’t have a release valve for them,” Zerwas added.
Other Programs for Workers
The Standard’s survey found that fewer than a third of workers say their employers are doing a very good or excellent job of supporting their mental health needs. These workers, Jolivet said, reported that their workplaces were doing well in these four ways: recognizing that mental health is just as important as physical health; improving access to mental health services; providing work accommodations and flexibility for workers that are struggling; and raising awareness of these issues at work.
One way Jolivet recommends managers raise awareness and provide support is by simply bringing a hardcopy of the employee assistance program to any meetings discussing performance to remind workers of their benefits. Someone who has a tardiness issue, he said, may actually be struggling to get out of bed because of depression.
According to Jolivet, The Standard is offering their own employees yoga, breathwork, and meditation classes; seminars on coping with stress and anxiety; and HR meetings on benefits.
Lyra Health recently launched a Return to Work guide that “targets how to offer support and help employees cope with anxiety,” Schneider said. They also have a variety of webinars and Q&A sessions on everything from normalizing the need for mental health support to recognizing the warning signs that someone needs help and responding effectively, she said.
Lyra Health’s clients, who include Fortune 500 companies, are re-examining their PTO, sick leave policies, and mental health benefits, Schneider said. Some have moved up their launch dates so workers have benefits sooner, she said. Starbucks has started offering 20 no-cost sessions a year with a therapist or coach through Lyra Health.
Because work is such a big part of people’s lives, Jolivet said, he encourages clinicians to engage employers in supporting their clients and providing accommodations. For example, he noted that at The Standard, a consultant provides workers struggling with anxiety and depression with tools to make it easier to stay organized and focused.
Schneider encouraged mental health providers to take care of themselves, as “they’re experiencing not only the stress of being in this pandemic [but also the] vicarious stress [from helping their clients].”
“I think they’re doing a really amazing job right now of supporting our society,” she said.