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May 21, 2020

COVID-19 – One more reason to address mental health

Bruce Morton

Even in the best of times, mental wellbeing is a major concern in the workplace and at home. This pandemic is affecting mental wellbeing with levels of anxiety and depression increasing due to the unknown looming.  Many cities have reported that they have responded to more emergency calls related to mental health over the past two months. With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, workers and families now face added pressures: the risk of themselves or loved ones becoming infected by COVID-19, real or potential job losses, school closures and other problems stemming from the pandemic. The question is how will they handle this extra pressure at work and at home?  Will the extra pressure directly affect employees’ relationships, their physical capabilities, their productivity, and their safety?

Whether working from home or in a workplace, most workers have experienced how important it is to support and understand mental health. Supporting your own wellbeing as well as those around you, is a critical piece to fostering healthy and safe workers and family members. The questions remains, what can we do to address this challenge, what can employers and families do to manage the pressures that have now escalated in this current virus environment?

Support your workers’ and family’s overall health. Creating a safer workplace helps reduce the likelihood of injuries, which contribute to mental health issues. A study by the Institute for Work and Health makes a correlation between mental health and reduction in injuries. The study states that within a 12-month time frame following an on-the-job work injury, seven out of 10 injured workers reported frequent bouts of depression. A safer workplace also means fully implementing COVID-19 safety practices not only meant to keep employees healthy, but also mentally at ease; these measures include improved sanitation, social distancing, leave for employees who may have COVID-19 and when necessary, reducing or suspending work-related activity.

Talk to your employees, family and friends about mental health and encourage them to talk about it too. My son has severe mental health issues. For the longest time my wife and I did not talk to others about it and it took a physical and emotion toll on our family. We found that once we talked to other support systems or just to other parents who had similar issues it helped tremendously. I recently talked to a colleague about my son and he pulled me aside to tell be about his son. I was able to provide him some information that hopefully in the long run will help their family. This is even rarer within the workplace. The National Alliance on Mental Illness states that although one in five Americans live with mental illness, only 43 percent of them seek support. With standard employee assistance programs seeing three to five percent utilization this means very few of our employees that need mental health support are getting it through the workplace. Unfortunately, the typical workplace or phone or text conversation is not a place where people talk about their feelings or personal struggles. Regular communication with workers, family and friends about mental wellbeing should be incorporated into daily living. It is also important to know what the warning signs and symptoms are and where to get help.

Take actions that will have an impact. It is critical to give anyone dealing with mental health issues the training they need to identify mental health problems and play a constructive role.  My wife and I have taken training through our local NAMI and through treatment centers that my son has visited. We found a book that really enlightened us as parents and gave us the tools to help our son and family. Resources like NAMI’s peer lead programs can assist families in getting though rough times. 

The stigma around mental illness is real and we need to make an effort to lessen it. Earlier I stated it was difficult to talk to others about my son’s mental health struggles. By talking about them, we were led to so many great people who helped us as a family at home, school and work. I encourage people to talk to each other, their employees and medical health individual for the mental wellbeing of themselves, their family and the workplace. A safer workplace, good communication, effective training and supportive benefits are recognized as compassionate best practices for promoting a healthier environment. We are not going to solve this problem overnight, but we can take steps now that will have real impact.

Read more about Mental Health and how MMA can support you in the Employee Mental Health: More vulnerable than ever during the COVID-19 crisis blog post.