Advice to Employers: Don’t Add to Your Employees’ Stress

Nancy Grover

Sarasota, FL ( – There’s been a surge in post-traumatic stress disorder among employees lately, according to recent surveys. The Mental Health Index reports the rate of employed people with PTSD is 83 percent higher than it was before the pandemic. General anxiety disorder is about 6 percent higher and the rate of depressive disorders is 11 percent more than it had been.

The rates of these and other mental health issues has varied with the ebbs and flows of the pandemic. Overall, the mental health of workers has deteriorated from the pre-pandemic baseline.

“A mental condition is no joke,” said Louis Gagnon, CEO, Total Brain. “When you go back to work and you are being consumed by anxiety you are not on top of your game. You cannot collaborate, you cannot communicate effectively or as effectively as you are used to.”

The monthly index monitors the mental capacities of workers in the U.S., Canada, the UK and Australia and is produced by Total Brain in concert with the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, One Mind at Work and the HR Policy Association and its American Health Policy Institute. Representatives of each were on hand during a recent Human Resource Executive webinar to discuss the latest survey and what employers can do to help the wellbeing of their employees.

July Mental Health Statistics

“In February of 2020, at the start of the pandemic, about 13 percent or 14 percent of the population were screening positive to standardized tests around anxiety. There was a crisis before we started the pandemic,” Gagnon said. “That number went up to 25 percent in May/June [2020] when the pandemic started to really hit hard. It went down…then up, and tapered off at about 6 percent higher than it was prior to the pandemic.”

The same data set showed 7 percent f the population was at risk for depressive orders, a figure that’s now 11 percent higher. For PTSD, pre-pandemic surveys showed around 11 percent of the population screening positive. That figure has varied throughout the pandemic and has steadily increased since February.

“This is not a diagnostic [test],” Gagnon said. “We are asking standardized questions to people around the intensity of their thoughts and feelings; ‘Are they intrusive?’ ‘Are they coming back over and over and over again?’ The answer we get is ‘yes, this is really, really an obsession. It is not making me feel good.’”

What Companies are Doing

Many large employers say they have taken steps to help their workers, not only through various benefit programs, but through compassion, understanding and empathy. The issue of emotional wellbeing is one of the top issues they are concerned about.

“Flexibility is the key; companies are trying to be as flexible as they possibly can, understanding they still have to support running a business,” said Colleen McHugh, EVP of the American Health Policy Institute and strategic advisor to the HR Policy Association. “[It is] meeting people where they are and trying to be able to recognize that ‘can we do something around work schedules?’ ‘Can we create different work schedules?’ ‘Can we shorten the work week?’ ‘Can we reconfigure the work space where people feel safe?’”

Among the challenges facing employers is when, if and how to bring remote workers back to the workplace.

“Many have pushed dates out for returning workers due to the Delta variant,” McHugh said. “What is the school year going to bring?’ We are going into flu season, what are we going to see happen with that?’ If it’s not mission critical to be at an address, can we wait until next year?’”

While some organizations have said they will have all their employees work from home, others are concerned about the need for collaboration among workers. Many say they are creating workspaces to bring people together.

“The understanding and how to integrate this into the workplace is something employers are doing every day,” McHugh said. “In light of where we are today in our world, the overall wellbeing of people is something they are dealing with on an active daily basis.”

The reasons for the increased mental health issues among employees has much to do with expectations; the expectations that the pandemic was coming to an end and life might return to normal, then finding out that was not the case. “We need certainty,” Gagnon said. “When we are suffering and we don’t see the end some serious deterioration can happen – and it’s happening.”

Strategies for Employers

Employers can help their employees by ensuring they don’t add to the stress. “Some of these things are out of the control of the employer’ what’s happening with vaccinations, racial justice issues, other issues that are occurring in the environment,” said Michael Thompson, president and CEO, National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions. “Everything you do to add to that stress manifests itself and increases risk and increases things downstream. Dealing with empathy and managing that – that’s very important; anything you can ease, eases the overall burden on the employees and keeps them well and more effective at their jobs.”

Helping employees separate their work/life balance is another area where employers can help their workers. For example, ensuring they take some time off to regroup and recover from the many stresses.

Finally, employers can take a cue from various celebrities to help bring discussions of mental health into the workplace. The case of Naomi Osaka is one example. The tennis star has said she wants to skip the mandatory press conferences following each match, saying she experiences anxiety before speaking to the media and has suffered bouts of depression.

“There’s an incredible opportunity here,” said Katy Riddick, director of Strategy and Engagement at One Mind at Work. “Here’s someone who was being asked to do something that was difficult for her mental heath. It wasn’t a core part of her job. I’d love for every person to think about what are those things in workplaces that are not necessarily parts of our role, parts of our success, but are more expectations we bring to the workplace that may not be as inclusive to our diverse colleagues.”

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