According to a 2019 study from Mind Share Partners, 86 percent of respondents said it was important that a company’s culture supports mental health. And these statistics were from before the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is more important than ever that employers promote a mental health-friendly workplace – for their employees who are:

  • Self-isolating
  • Experiencing domestic violence
  • Need resources for general mental health maintenance, and
  • Will eventually be returning to work after a traumatic global event.

Mental Health Challenges During and Following Traumatic Events Like COVID-19

After previous outbreaks like SARS and Ebola, many experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – particularly first responders and medical professionals, in addition to the patients and individuals in high-incident areas. Though not a pandemic, Hurricane Katrina offers a domestic case study. One Princeton study found that low-income parents’ mental illness severity doubled, while many of them experienced PTSD. Some of the symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety and uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

Given these precedents, we must acknowledge that mental health awareness is a critical element of COVID-19 recovery. Employers are in a unique position to assist individuals who are and will experience symptoms of mental health conditions.

PTSD Diagnostic criteria

These are some of the symptoms that indicate a person may be suffering from PTSD. Illustration by JR Bee at Verywell.

Guidelines for Mental Health Awareness

#1: Conduct mental health awareness training that decreases stigma and teaches employees how to respond to and assist an individual who may be experiencing severe mental health issues, including thoughts of suicide.

Some of the best defenses against an individual hurting themselves or others is providing support to those who are experiencing suicidal thoughts and educating coworkers to identify warning signs. In our mental health awareness training, we dive into different types of mental illness as well as their associated symptoms, so that employers and employees can assist anyone who appears to be experiencing these symptoms.

We specifically emphasize suicide prevention. Suicide remains the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. (excluding COVID-19 fatalities) and approximately 150 occur every day. According to the Bureau of Labor of Statistics, the number of people who are committing suicide at work rose 11 percent between 2017 and 2018. But employers and coworkers can help those who may be contemplating suicide if they know how to recognize the signs, sympathetically and appropriately approach the subject with the person, and if necessary, report the situation to others.

#2: Leverage your employee assistance programs (EAPs) and teletherapy to ensure employees receive care.

Many employers already have some of the tools to assist employees struggling with mental health, including EAPs. EAPs can provide critical resources and counseling services. Leadership should regularly promote these services and their offerings.

Employees should also confirm what therapy options are available via their insurance plan, such as teletherapy. Teletherapy, or therapy that a mental health professional administers over video chat or phone call, is an essential service during stay-at-home orders.

Some companies choose to have an on-site therapist for their employees. However, during social distancing, this therapist could offer their services virtually. Though this option offers potential confidentiality and technological issues, it provides the services needed and can be a temporary addition until employees return to the workplace.

#3: Develop a communications plan that promotes mental health awareness and fosters a sense of community.

To create a mental health-friendly environment, leaders must reduce the stigma of mental health issues and provide education and proper communication about mental health conditions. Occasional emails promoting the mental health resources available as well as encouragement from leadership for employees to use these services demonstrate the organization’s commitment to their wellbeing. This correspondence should not feel forced or be too frequent, but planning initiatives like a Mental Health Awareness Month event in May can provide support for and gain the respect of employees who may have mental health issues themselves or have family or friends who are experiencing them.

During self-isolation, we strongly suggest planning activities that foster community, even over video calls. Many companies are using virtual happy hours or other team and morale-building exercises to connect with coworkers and make them feel less alone.

#4: Acknowledge that domestic violence is and will continue to be on the rise as shelter-in-place orders and economic instability continue.

Domestic violence prevention should be a priority for every employer. United Nations leaders recently called for a “ceasefire” in response to the “horrifying surge” of violence at home, particularly toward women.

Domestic violence and mental illness are intertwined. Victims of domestic violence frequently develop depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses due to the constant manipulation and psychological turmoil they experience. Abusers also frequently struggle with mental health issues, such as substance abuse. The situation becomes more complex when one considers that most essential service workers are women, who are more likely to experience domestic violence and certain mental illnesses like depression. A mental health awareness program must acknowledge these connections to be holistic and effective.

In our previous blog about domestic violence, we spoke at length about what employers can do to assist employees who are victims of domestic violence during self-isolation. The recommendations we have listed in this blog can also be applied to domestic violence in the workplace.

domestic-violence-covid-19

UN Women

#5: Engage third-party experts to assess your workplace violence prevention policies and procedures as risks of employee retaliation and extremism pervade.

We see time and time again that active assailants target their current or former workplace, in part, because of perceived or real grievances against their coworkers. These individuals often exhibit risk factors prior to their attack, as well as feelings of isolation and neglect that an employer could otherwise work to mitigate.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, as employers are forced to lay off and furlough employees, individuals who may be on the pathway to violence may seek retaliation. The pandemic compounds this fear as employees feel the financial stress and uncertainty of regaining normalcy in their daily life.

The U.S. Secret Service’s 2019 report on mass attacks in public spaces demonstrates how these factors are reflected in perpetrators. According to the report, in 2018:

  • Half [of attackers] were motivated by a personal grievance related to a workplace, domestic or other issue.
  • Two-thirds [of attackers] had histories of mental health issues, including depressive, suicidal and psychotic symptoms.
  • Nearly all [attackers] had at least one significant stressor within the last five years, and over half had indications of financial instability in that timeframe.
  • Nearly all [attackers] made threatening or concerning communications and more than three-quarters elicited concern from others prior to carrying out their attacks. These communications frequently occurred with co-workers, family or friends.

It is critical to develop a workplace violence prevention program as part of a larger mental health awareness strategy. Under this program, coworkers are encouraged to report any activity that could signal a potential attack on the workplace to a threat assessment team (TAT), that can then assess and manage the threat. If a viable threat is identified, the TAT determines options and actions to be taken and makes those recommendations to the appropriate personnel for response. This process can be just as effective when employees work from home. It is recommended that employers provide workplace violence prevention training while workers self-isolate so they can be prepared to report, if necessary.

Take Action Now

In sum, a proactive approach to establishing a mental health-friendly workplace will help protect employees – in self-isolation and after returning to work; improve workplace safety; raise morale; and help prevent long-term damage to your organization’s operations, performance and reputation.

 

For more information on how law enforcement leaders are making mental health a priority during COVID-19, click here

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