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As employee stress rises, HR focuses on mental health

Employee stress, thanks to the pandemic, the election and working from home, can hurt productivity and employee health. HR is finding ways to help.

Between the COVID-19 pandemic and the election, employee stress levels are high, which hurts employee productivity, motivation and focus. Concern about stress is prompting renewed attention on employee benefits and how they are delivered.

The actions by employers in response to employee stress are wide-ranging. An easy and cost-effective response is to make sure employees know about their existing employee assistance program benefits. Other steps include organizing employee support groups and even paying for therapy and coaching. Without a doubt, the extra support is needed, according to mental health experts.

"This year is, for most people, just a giant ball of stress," said Tyler Arvig, who has a doctorate in psychology and is associate medical director at R3 Continuum, a Minneapolis provider of consulting and psychological support services with a network of about 7,000 behavioral health clinicians. "It's now the norm that people are struggling."

Those working from home are also dealing with personal and work issues together, Arvig said. "There is no line anymore," he said.

Employee stress has always had an impact on work, but current conditions are causing even more of a toll.

"If we are daydreaming and distracted, we're not focused," said Ruth Hunt, principal of engagement at Buck Global LLC, an HR consulting, technology and benefits administration services firm in New York. Businesses pay the cost of stress and distraction, including employee absenteeism and even health risks because of the impact of stress on the body, she said. 

This year is, for most people, just a giant ball of stress.
Tyler ArvigAssociate medical director, R3 Continuum

Many firms have employee assistance programs (EAPs) that provide support programs, but they are often underutilized, Arvig said. "We know that only a small fraction of people actually ever use [an EAP]." The lack of participation could be for any number of reasons, from lack of awareness to worries about privacy, he said.

Responses to employee stress

But given the pandemic as well as the presidential election, employers are doing more to advertise the existence of their EAPs. They are also encouraging more use of employee resource groups (ERGs), where employees with shared interests and concerns, such as new parents, LGBTQ and minority employees, veterans and others meet for discussions, according to the experts.

Some firms are going even further to tackle employee stress.

Zendesk Inc., a CRM provider, contracted with Modern Health, a mental health care provider, to bring online therapy to employees. Employees can meet for one-on-one sessions with therapists and coaches. The benefit is available to Zendesk's 4,000 employees globally.

Evangeline Mendiola, global head of benefits at Zendesk, said the company wanted a resource to help employees reach out to a board-certified therapist or coach. Employees get five free sessions. There are also self-help and meditation tools on the app, according to Mendiola.

Zendesk launched the program in May, and many employees are using the app to schedule a meeting with a therapist or coach, she said.

Election stress

The pandemic created a "big transition" for employees, Mendiola said. Managers were hearing concerns from employees about juggling home life with work, along with the added stress from the pandemic and the election, she said. "We think election stress is real," she said.

"We want to invest in making our employees more productive," Mendiola said. "We take care of our employees; that's just philosophically where we stand."

"There is a cost, of course," Mendiola said, "but we see the benefit because we want our employees happier and more productive."

Perhaps in time for the next stressful presidential election, mental health chatbots may be able to deliver psychological support as well. Buck's Hunt is keeping an eye on this technology.

A study last year by researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a teaching hospital affiliated with Harvard Medical School, found that the outlook "for psychiatric use of chatbots is favorable." It also described a need. There are only about nine psychiatrists per 100,000 people in developed nations.

"The jury is still out on their effectiveness and/or optimal application," Hunt said of mental health chatbots. "Employers surely would just see this as one option" of new technologies "that are trying to be more creative in finding ways people can choose support that's readily available, inexpensive or even free," she said.

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