Ongoing Mental Health Impact from COVID-19
At the close of 2019, Springbuk released its 2020 Employer Health Trends Report, which focused on three main themes identified within our data set to help inform employers of what they are likely to see over the coming months and year. In the Trends Report, mental health was a key theme identified with almost 20% of all members having some type of mental health condition. Our analysis further uncovered that the cost per month for members with mental health conditions is double that for members with no mental health condition. Furthermore, these members are twice as likely to become high-cost claimants, and almost 70% have some other chronic condition. With statistics like this, employers were facing an uphill battle as they tried to address the mental health needs of their members. As we begin to emerge eight weeks after a national shut down, the game has changed once again as we start to understand the impact on our collective mental health.
A recent survey from Ginger1 indicated that employees' stress levels are at an all-time high. 88% of survey participants reported moderate to extreme stress over the past four to six weeks, and almost 70% claimed this pandemic is the most stressful time of their entire professional careers. Now, as employees prepare to return to work, we enter yet another new phase of challenges that are likely to stress members further physically, emotionally, and socially. Let's examine each of these and their potential impact on mental health.
We have all had conversations with colleagues who are ready to return to the office and to "get back to normal." However, with the release of more and more guidelines and regulations as employees head back to work, it is clear that the office environment we left, will not be the same we return to, at least in the interim. Our new environments will follow protocols that limit our proximity to our coworkers, require everyone to wear a mask, and virtually eliminate shared resources like communal snacks/beverages, call rooms, and large gatherings.
Besides these factors, additional challenges could present themselves around screening employees each day for symptoms and fever, new cleaning protocols, and designation of roles and responsibilities around these procedures.
The changes to our physical work environment alone are enough to cause additional stress. Still, we are likely to see additional emotional stress related to the disruption of our new stay at home routines and the anxiety associated with potential exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace and the threat of spreading the virus to our family and friends. Employees may find themselves in new roles at home (i.e., being the primary financial contributor) as other family members may be in a period of furlough or lost their jobs.
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation2 poll showed 56% of Americans have had at least one negative mental health effect, including trouble eating or sleeping, drinking alcohol more, frequent headaches or stomach aches, shorter tempers, and other health problems. Knowing mental health issues do not remain siloed, additional factors related to returning to work could cause an extra toll on emotional health.
This pandemic has brought many of our lives to a standstill, including large, social activities related to holidays, celebrations, graduations, etc. The shutdowns have left people with a great sense of isolation and craving for social interaction and ultimately leading back to the excitement of returning to work, which, as discussed, is unlikely to fulfill the social connections that have been void over the past eight weeks.
Given this state of uncertainty and ever-changing guidelines, protecting our mental health will be critical to the success of returning to the workplace. Below are general recommendations to address the ongoing need of employees.
- Relaunch/re-communicate existing mental health services - whether this is an Employee Assistance Program, internal resources or external vendor, ensure employees know the resources available to them, and remove barriers to access services.
- Address mental health head-on - take a mental health temperature check of your employees and team members, address and acknowledge the challenges that come with the fluidity of the situation, and ensure employees feel supported and cared for at all levels of the organization.
- Use your data to drive your strategy and measure outcomes - know the prevalence of mental health conditions in your member population and track the impact COVID-19 has had on your population. By using your data to assess changes in mental health claims and diagnoses, scripts for mental health conditions, and changes to utilization patterns, you will be better poised to make meaningful decisions on how to best support your members.
*The Springbuk team is closely monitoring the impact social unrest will have on emotional wellbeing. We anticipate emotional stress and mental health will be impacted by recent events in May and June.
1 "Covid 19 four radical changes in U.S. worker mental health needs," Ginger, April 2020
2 "Planning for the next normal at work," Kaiser Permanente, May 2020
Jennifer Jones, MSM RD, Population Health Practice Leader
Jennifer is an experienced healthcare professional with a background in clinical dietetics, wellness programming, and employer health. With over 15 years of experience, she has worked in various settings, including healthcare systems, occupational health organizations and health, and welfare benefits advisory firms. After working directly with patients and employees, Jennifer joined Springbuk, where she serves as the Population Health Practice Leader, and turned her focus to population and employer health to achieve a greater impact on health outcomes.