Benefits Products & Services
By Thomas A. McCoy, CLU
EMPLOYEE WELL-BEING TAKES CENTER STAGE
EAP professionals see silver linings to pandemic’s effects
The pandemic has left its mark on the psyche of rank-and-file workers, managers and senior managers/owners of companies. At all levels of the workplace there is an increased awareness of personal vulnerability to physical, financial, emotional, and social threats.
One result is that the opportunity has never been greater for employee benefits plans to address needs that are loosely labeled as “well-being.” Evidence of this opportunity comes from soundings made by a number of benefits providers.
MetLife’s most recent Employee Benefits Trends Study found that 62% of employees think that employee benefits are more important now because of the pandemic. Yet, 39% of employees say their employer is not currently offering benefits and programs to support their well-being.
Current research by Lincoln Financial Group finds that 64% of full-time employed U.S. adults would choose an employer with a less stressful work environment over a 10% higher salary.
[I]n today’s overstressed work climate, the notion of simply offloading worker problems onto an EAP—for those organizations that have them—may be an inadequate response.
A Travelers survey measured the effect that employer-provided well-being resources have had on employee loyalty to the organization during the pandemic. Loyalty rose for 33% of workers who stated that their employer provided more than enough mental health resources; for those who said their employers did not meet this standard, loyalty to the organization rose 26%.
Benefits decision makers are getting the message that employee well-being matters. According to MetLife’s data, 74% of employers offer—or intend to offer—more added-value services for employees, such as mental health programs or EAPs (Employee Assistance Programs).
An EAP, which provides professional mental health counseling as part of a benefits plan, is the logical place to look for guidance in understanding and attacking problems related to overall employee well-being. Yet in today’s overstressed work climate, the notion of simply offloading worker problems onto an EAP—for those organizations that have them—may be an inadequate response.
Two EAP professionals, speaking at separate webinars recently, provided their views of today’s employee well-being challenges and solutions. Their advice suggests that the well-being of a business organization’s workforce depends to a large extent on the actions of managers toward employers.
Kristin Matthews, chief clinical officer at KGA, a Boston area-based EAP, said, “Mental health issues in the workplace are a pandemic in and of themselves, and certainly COVID has fanned the flames.”
Matthews spoke at a webinar hosted by The New England Employee Benefits Council (NEEBC). “If there’s a silver lining to the pandemic, it’s a greater realization that mental health matters,” she said. “Employers and their brokers are devoting increasing attention to employee mental health.”
KGA has conducted more than 18,000 consultations with individuals during the pandemic. It has seen those pertaining to anxiety increase by 70%, for grief and loss (not just deaths) by 25%, and work stress by 10%. It attributes 36% of the employee calls it has received since March of 2020 to pandemic-induced factors.
Matthews noted that 2018 statistics from The State of Mental Health in America report produced by the CDC and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration indicate the scope of the mental health problem pre-pandemic. It found that 19% of adults experienced a mental illness, and that 24% of them reported an unmet need for treatment.
Brian Mayhugh, Ph.D., chief clinical officer at Integrated Behavioral Health, a California-based provider of EAP and other behavioral health services, told attendees of a webinar hosted by Guardian Life, “We’re seeing a cultural shift regarding mental health in the general population. People are becoming more literate about it.”
This has brought business owners, supervisors and managers face to face with new opportunities and challenges, Mayhugh believes. “They are realizing every day the importance of taking care of themselves and having coping strategies.
“One silver lining emerging from the pandemic experience,” Mayhugh said, “is increased use of technology solutions for treating mental health problems. Interventions can be reasonably priced, which makes it easier for people to get help.
“We’ve had rapid deployment of telemedicine, virtual consultations for mental as well as physical needs, asynchronous coaching, and digital mental health applications both on the web and mobile. These resources will make it possible to deliver services to individuals on a more tailored, personal basis.”
At the same time, he noted, managers’ relationships with employees are being reshaped. “They haven’t been able to communicate with employees in the same way during the pandemic. It’s important now to be able to exercise compassion [and] empathy and really connect with our teams again on a very personal level.”
Mayhugh said that by sharing their own sense of vulnerability, managers can open up dialogue that will help employees deal with their own stress. “It’s so important for us to model healthy behavior. When managers share, others are more comfortable sharing,” he said.
Off-site work can raise new problems. “Employees who shifted to working from home sometimes worry that since managers do not see them face to face, they are perceived as not doing enough work,” Mayhugh said. This can lead to their working too much, and unhealthy stress, he added.
“As more people return to the workplace, it gives managers the opportunity to interact with them and to show them that they are appreciated.”
Chris Smith, executive vice president and head of group benefits at Guardian Life, told the same webinar audience that adjustments to work rules and schedules are helping ease the stress for employees, both in and out of the office.
“We’ve seen three or four employers going from unpaid leave to paid leave for employees who have to be away from work. We’ve seen companies developing leaders’ guides to explain company policies such as paid leave. Also, some companies have introduced periods of quiet time throughout the week or eliminated meetings on Friday afternoons,” Smith said.
Matthews said that to achieve mental well-being in the workplace, so much depends on the managers’ personal response. “It takes a village, and managers are at the heart of that village,” she said. Her advice for managers is to practice compassion, respect and humanity.
Compassion from managers, she explained, means “the willingness to listen to employee concerns and determine how they can be addressed. Respect means putting mental health on a par with physical health and getting rid of the stigma so often attached to mental problems. Humanity is simply recognizing that we all struggle in one way or another.
“These are seemingly simple ideas, but they can have a significant impact on employee experience,” she said. “So, how do managers put them into practice?”
Matthews said it starts with simply observing behaviors that suggest an employee is feeling overwhelmed. Then it boils down to a four-step process: showing empathy; giving direction—steering an employee to an EAP, for example; explaining the resource—such as what will and will not happen with the EAP; and offering manager support.
She cautioned managers: “Avoid diagnosing, assuming you understand the problem, or minimizing—with statements such as ‘Everyone gets depressed now and then.’”
Not all stressors caused by the pandemic have gone away as employees in more organizations return to the work-place. And new ones have emerged. “Some people who worked remotely are anxious about going back,” Mayhugh pointed out. Some are vaccinated; some are not.
“It’s important for employers to listen to these concerns with empathy and try to look for solutions. Employers need to establish rules for the workplace and let employees know whom they go to when they have concerns,” Mayhugh advised.
The pandemic has spawned a wide range of concerns related to employee mental health. The good news is that so many employers are taking these concerns seriously, thus moving toward long-term improvements. Better understanding of employee needs has always been a primary underpinning of successful employee benefits planning.
Thomas A. McCoy, CLU, is an Indiana-based freelance insurance writer.