Combating a Crisis
#evolve Magazine
July 18, 2021

While the COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on all segments of the world and the workforce, ample research has revealed women experienced the brunt of it.

The main culprit was an elimination of work-life harmony for many working mothers, with the responsibility of child care falling primarily to them as schools closed across the globe. This, of course, led to an uptick in stress and a decrease in well-being for many of these working moms.

A CVS Health survey from April revealed as much. For example, 60% of the women in the study said the pandemic has had a negative impact on their overall levels of stress, and nearly half (46%) said they are experiencing significantly more or somewhat more stress compared to this time last year. In fact, women said they have experienced fear or concern about the impact of COVID-19 on their family’s or friend’s health (66%), their health (60%) and their household’s financial situation (49%).

The CVS study found that when compared to men, women are more likely to agree that they often do not prioritize their own mental health because they are focused on taking care of others (45% vs. 38%). When looking specifically at moms, nearly one quarter (23%) said the pandemic has caused them to experience difficulty providing the necessary caregiving to their children — a higher proportion than the general population of American adults (13%).

“A year into the pandemic, it’s clear that women are just one of many communities hit hardest,” said Cara McNulty, president, behavioral health and employee assistance program at Aetna, a CVS Health company. “When stay-at-home orders from the pandemic were put in place, many women quickly recalibrated their daily routines to care for children and family members, often while also managing work responsibilities and at-home duties.”

Employers can alleviate some of this burden by communicating their well-being resources to employees while also considering beefing up their offerings to better support working mothers. In addition to highlighting the mental health and well-being resources available to employees, such as employee assistance programs, employers should also work to foster an environment that allows women to feel comfortable expressing any feelings of being overwhelmed or burnt out, McNulty said.

“What’s your culture driving?” she asked. “Is your culture driving a precedent where people don’t feel like they can show up and be themselves? Do your employees feel like they can talk about how hard this has been? Creating the cultural norm of sharing and talking and making sure people know it’s OK not to be OK is critical.”

“A year into the pandemic, it’s clear that women are just one of many communities hit hardest.”

Additionally, organizations that are in a position to provide more flexibility to their employees, whether through increased remote work or flexible work hours, should do so, McNulty said. This will decrease some of the stress put on female employees with child care responsibilities and encourages them to remain in the workforce.

“It’s about being creative so we don’t have women completely stepping out of the workforce, because it’s not good for any business,” McNulty said. “We know that when companies take this cultural approach, embed flexibility and share the resources they offer, women stay in the workplace, are more productive and you have better outcomes.”

While there’ve been plenty of negative effects from the pandemic, one silver lining when it comes to mental health has been an increased acceptance and awareness around people sharing their struggles. This, McNulty noted, has made employers more proactive when it comes to their employees’ well-being and it has invigorated a conversation that was long dormant because of social stigmas.

“What we need to press on is that this isn’t just because of a pandemic. Our mental health and well-being needs to be taken care of just like our physical health and well-being, spiritual health and well-being and social health and well-being,” McNulty said. “It’s an imperative part of our total well-being, so advancing the conversation and making it socially accept- able in communities to talk about your own mental health and asking for help is really important, and the pandemic has helped catapult that conversation.”

Providing Whole Person Care

Allina Health, a health-care system based in Minneapolis, has an employee base that is 79% female and 24% minority ethnicity. In a May 20 presentation at WorldatWork’s Workplace Equity Virtual Forum, Kristyn Mullin, vice president of total rewards at Allina, explained how the company had to quickly adapt its well-being program once the pandemic hit.

The program the company had in place was incentive-based and required employees to complete various health-related tasks to earn “well-being dollars” in their accounts. Given the stress many of their female employees were already under from working in health care amid the pandemic, 2020 became an inflection point.

“It seemed like well-being was a chore and not actually supporting the employee on their journey,” Mullin said. “Instead, it was just one more thing they had to do when they were already overtaxed.”

Mullin said the company felt an outcry for mental health and well-being resources in the early stages of the pandemic. The resources were available, she said, but employees weren’t accessing them because there were too many barriers to finding them, including a prearranged point system that required employees to reach certain point thresholds to unlock some of these resources.

“It seemed like well-being was a chore and not actually supporting the employee on their journey.”

“Given the pandemic, that really felt tone-deaf,” Mullin said. “So, we made another shift and decided we would eliminate the dollars for doing and eliminate incentives altogether.”

To rectify the situation and deliver a quality well-being experience for their employees, the company polled their employees and incorporated their feedback to build a program that provided “whole person care.” The key variables Allina landed on were:

  • No incentives,
  • One place for employees to go — no sign-in required,
  • Dollars for everyone into a well-being account,
  • Leader engagement in the program,
  • Extra resources for mental health, including resources that helped with anxiety, sleep coaching and financial counseling,
  • Manager tool-kits and targeted resources, which helped managers be a better resource for their team members, and
  • Ability to be fully flexible and agile.

And, just as Allina listened to their employees to build the program, Mullin said the company measures the success of the program through surveys instead of the medical spend.

The Importance of Empathy

While formal well-being programs are certainly helpful, employers can also aid their employees struggling with mental health by displaying more empathy.

This culture of empathy and inclusive- ness has to start at the top, which can sometimes create an internal dilemma with leadership. A study on workplace empathy by Businessolver found that CEOs were 22% less likely to say empathy in their organization is sufficient, yet 68% said they feared being less respected if they show empathy in the workplace.

“We need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and transparent,” said Jon Shanahan, president and CEO of Businessolver. “I think for too many executive leaders, we can get caught up in believing that good leadership — especially through times of crisis and uncertainty — equates to strength through stoicism. However, the data also shows us that when we allow ourselves to connect with employees through struggle, we’re met with empathy in return.”

Shanahan emphasized the importance of leaders fostering a more empathetic workplace, because it will help remove the stigma that is too often associated with mental health. Businessolver’s study found that 66% of employees, 75% of HR professionals and 82% of CEOs believe that someone with a mental health issue will be viewed as weak or as a burden by companies. The ongoing pandemic, and 2020 in particular, did appear to drive better empathy results at most organizations.

Top examples of empathetic behavior by employers, according to employees surveyed, were:

  • Allowing flexibility by understanding and respecting the need for time off.
  • Inquiring about employees’ lives outside of work.
  • Recognizing personal and professional milestones.
  • Advocating on behalf of colleagues.

“Without in-person connections or the tangible benefits and perks we used to be able to rely on to demonstrate empathy, we found that employers who shifted toward driving greater emotional connections are the ones that employees valued the most,” Shanahan said. “I don’t know if the value of those things would have been rated as highly without the pandemic.”

While there was no doubt progress made on employer resources and empathy as it relates to mental health in the past year, a gap still exists. Because, as much as the pandemic illuminated the need for more mental health and well-being resources, it also exacerbated what many health experts already considered a crisis in the United States.

Research from The Standard conducted at the beginning of 2021 found that nearly half (46%) of full-time American workers are suffering from mental health issues, up from 39% one year ago. Among workers struggling with mental health issues, more than half (55%) reported that it has been affecting their work since the pandemic began.

Among workers struggling with addiction or substance abuse issues, more than one-third (36%) said it has affected their work more since the pandemic began. One in three survey respondents said that half or more of their work time suffers when they are struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues.

Identifying the Disconnect

Research from McKinsey’s Center for Societal Benefit through Healthcare found several points of disconnect between employer and employee perspective on workplace mental health. While 65% of employers reported that employee mental health is supported well or very well at their organization, just 51% of employees agreed. The gap is even greater when narrowed down to just employees on the frontlines of the pandemic. While 71% of employers said they supported those employees’ mental health well or very well, just 27% of front- line employees agreed.

On the flip side, just 20% of employers reported that improving access to substance abuse disorder treatment and recovery support is a priority, while 84% of employees reported access to these resources are a challenge. Additionally, 31% of employers reported that improving access to mental illness treatment is a priority, while 67% of employees with mental illness said it was challenging to access care.

McKinsey advised five actions for employers to ramp up their continued support of workforce mental health:

  • Make mental health a priority.
  • Measure results and hold accountability.
  • Cultivate an inclusive culture.
  • Enhance mental health support.
  • Communicate available support.

Nearly 80% of employers surveyed by McKinsey reported at least some concern about employee mental health overall, and about two-thirds reported concern about substance use disorder. About half of employer respondents indicated that mental health is a top organizational/CEO priority for them. McKinsey noted that employers can prioritize mental health by appointing leaders responsible for mental health at an organizational level, as well as expanding benefits, policies and programs.

The breadth of these actions are dependent upon organization size, budget and overall well-being of each individual employee population. However, an investment in employee well-being has proven a worthy endeavor by many organizations. Gallup research and Aon research found a link between improved employee well-being and improved company financial performance.

WorldatWork’s “Workplace Well-Being Trends” survey found that 68% of employers include diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) as a part of their overall well-being strategy. The impact of these efforts is real, as 60% of employees strongly agreed that DEI improves their work experience.

“Well-being and work experiences are inexorably linked, and there’s never been a better time for employers to provide personalized guidance and resources to their employees in the ways they need it and can take action,” said Laine Thomas Conway, vice president of communication strategy and total rewards product manager at Alight.

“The pandemic exposed vulnerabilities around employee well-being and where they can find support. Now, it’s up to employers to assess the needs of their workforce and experiment with fresh ways to help them achieve their well-being priorities.”

“Well-being and work experiences are inexorably linked, and there’s never been a better time for employers to provide personalized guidance and resources to their employees in the ways they need it and can take action.”

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