COVID-19 and employee mental health: What employers can do

COVID-19 and employee mental health: What employers can do

Excerpted from a Thompson Coburn LLP blog by Lori W. Jones

The significant impact of COVID-19 on employees includes not only the many risks to physical health, but also the heavy toll on employee mental health.

In October 2020, the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) reported that mental health illnesses could soon eclipse obesity as the most common pre-existing condition in the U.S. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder increased from 11% during the period January to June 2019 to 41.5% during the two-week period January 20 to February 1, 2021.

Implications of COVID-19 for mental health
On February 10, 2021, the KFF published an updated brief, titled “The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use” (2021 KFF Brief). The conclusions set forth in the 2021 KFF Brief include the following:

• Adults ages 18-24 are almost twice as likely as all adults to report new or increased substance use (25% vs. 13%) or recent suicidal thoughts (26% vs 11%);

• Women are more likely than men to report systems of anxiety and/or depressive disorder (47% vs. 38%);

• Adults in households with adverse economic circumstances due to the pandemic (e.g., job losses or reduced incomes) reported higher mental health symptoms than other households (53% vs. 32%);

• Essential workers are more likely than non-essential; workers to report symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder (42% vs. 30%), increased or new substance use (25% vs. 11%) or recent suicidal thoughts (22% vs 8%).

Employer response to impact of COVID-19 on employee mental health
Employers are taking note of the rise in mental health issues among employees. Unum surveyed 409 employers from August 12 to August 20, 2020 regarding challenges relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. When asked how concerned employers were about their employees’ mental health or wellness needs during the COVID-19 pandemic, 85% responded that they were somewhat or very concerned. Among the employers surveyed, 67% indicated that they anticipated that employee use of existing mental health or wellness benefits will increase in the coming months.

Willis Towers Watson (WTW) also reports that employers are focusing on mental health benefits. In May 2020, WTW reported that 92% of employees acknowledged some level of anxiety due to the pandemic with 55% reporting a moderate or high degree of anxiety. Seventy percent of employees indicate some distraction from work due to COVID-19 issues and only 32% indicate they are able to balance working from home with other obligations.

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