Mental health support in 2022: Giving employees the tools to take back control of their well-being
By Amanda Schiavo | Employee Benefit News
December 6, 2021
If 2020 was a year of rapid change and uncertainty, then 2021 was largely about adapting to the new normal created by the pandemic. Employees’ mental health has taken a beating over the last two years, but employers have made efforts to step up and offer support. Now, as we enter a new phase of pandemic uncertainty, workplaces are searching for new ways to understand what employees need to feel supported and bring their full authentic selves to work.
“One of the things that is critical is the communication around mental health,” says Bert Alicea, a psychologist and executive vice president of EAP work/life services at Health Advocate, a healthcare and patient advocacy company. “From an employee assistance standpoint, we want to move away from this idea that people who [seek help] have a mental health issue and we want to focus more on what I call ‘temporary setbacks in life,’ and focus on the whole well-being of the individual.”
Alicea recently connected with Employee Benefit News to discuss how employees’ mental health needs have evolved over the past year and what long-term mental health support looks like going into 2022.
Over the past year, what changes have you seen employers make to the mental health benefits they offer?
A lot of companies are actually looking at increasing the number of therapy sessions that they offer. So if they were in a model that offered up to three sessions, they may want to offer five or six sessions, simply because they know employees are having more issues. Companies can know if they’re offering the right model based on what the utilization looks like and how many people are using the service.
What specific mental health issues are employees dealing with?
It’s the anxiety of wondering: Is this ever going to end? And the stress of balancing work and family can lead to anxiety, and then that anxiety can lead to depression. It starts like a little snowflake, and then it becomes an avalanche.
As a psychologist, how would you treat someone dealing with these particular emotional issues?
I’m really big into asking people, How do you think you can feel better? What are some ways that you think you can feel better that you can take control of? We spend so much time focusing on the things that are out of our control, like the pandemic, and we don’t spend enough time on focusing on things that we have control over, like how I’m going to spend my day, what I’m going to do this afternoon, what I’m going to do tonight, and what I’m going to do tomorrow. Planning ahead is probably the biggest way to decrease stress in a person’s life. Planning ahead for family, planning ahead for work, planning ahead for whatever you want to do is going to decrease your stress level because then you don’t go into that mindset where we dwell on the things that are out of our control.
When I treat someone and ask them that question, they often haven’t thought about it that way. But thinking about active ways you can feel better can be simply incorporating exercise into your life, or some form of spirituality, or increasing socialization with friends, neighbors and family. I can give them all the tools and techniques, but if I just tell someone how to feel better they might shoot that idea down or have an excuse not to do it. Sometimes people come to therapy thinking we have a magic power that can make it all better, but really what we try to do is clear the clouds in their heads a little bit and get some of that destructive thinking out of the way and bring more constructive thinking into their lives.
If you had to come up with three actionable steps employers could take to help clear the clouds in employees’ minds, what would they be?
First, train supervisors to be empathetic listeners. Second, constant communication with employees about the whole concept of well-being. And third, tap into your people as a resource. Ask employees if anyone has anything they would like the company to focus on as it relates to mental well-being, and employers can tap into vendor partners to see if they have something that might meet employees’ needs that can be shared across the board.
Sometimes HR struggles with what to do next, and I think that they’re thinking too hard about it. The answer might be right in front of them if they tap into the employee resources that they have, because they may be able to give them some really good concrete suggestions.
What does long-term mental health support at work look like going into 2022?
The whole connotation of mental health has this stigma around it, and people can’t get by that. That’s why I like to put it in a lens of total well-being. It’s okay not to be okay. But at the same time, it’s not okay not to do something about it. With these new variants, I’m sure there are some people out there feeling like this is never going to end. People are grieving the loss of not being able to go to work, or do the things that we used to find enjoyable. We see it getting better, and then it goes backwards. So where does that leave us? It’s that constant nurturing of information and resources. More employers now are seeing the need for this and they have to create that visibility of the program without the stigmas that are attached to it.
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