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November 17, 2020

Supporting Employee Mental Health During COVID-19

Millions of Americans were struggling with depression before COVID-19 reared its ugly head. The number of adults in the U.S. showing signs of depression has tripled since the start of the pandemic, according to a recent study by JAMA Network Open. With prompted quarantines, stay-at-home orders, halted social events, job insecurities, personal finances, and other high stressors, it isn’t a surprise that a pandemic would take a toll on mental health.

These unwelcome signs of depression and stress have also found their way into the workplace. Nearly 20% of U.S. workers believe their mental health is currently poor, or very poor, compared to just 5% before the start of the pandemic, according to a Flexjobs survey in partnership with Mental Health America. The survey results also found that:

•   Four in 10 employees have experienced burnout during the pandemic

•   37% of employees are working longer hours because of the virus

•   Only 21% of employees said they were able to have open, productive conversations with HR about solutions to their burnout

•   56% of employees said their companies didn’t encourage such conversations about burnout


Encouraging Support

The CDC estimates that depression interferes with a person’s ability to complete physical job tasks about 20% of the time and reduces cognitive performance about 35% of the time. It’s crucial for companies to recognize the responsibility they have to their employees and provide support to reduce stress and prevent burnout. According to the Flexjobs survey, having more flexibility was the top priority listed among employees as a way employers can better support their people, followed by encouraging time off, offering mental health days, and increasing the amount of paid time off.

So how can employers better tend to employee mental health and help them cope with burnout, COVID-19 and other stressors? To start, employers can foster a culture of connection and communication through consistent check-ins. Many employees are finding themselves telecommuting for the first time, and it is possible some could be feeling isolated from co-workers. It is natural for this type of disruption to create stress and anxiety. Have a supervisor schedule weekly conversations with teams or individuals to check in not only on work progress but also to find out if employees need additional support in completing their jobs successfully.


Health Management

Not only does depression interfere with productivity, but it can also be costly for employers. One in five adults in the U.S. suffer from mental health challenges each year, costing employers a staggering 200 million lost workdays and up to $44 billion in costs, according to the CDC.

Health management programs can significantly help in reducing costs for employers and employees and significantly help improve the health and wellbeing of those living with chronic conditions, especially depression. At Western Growers Assurance Trust (WGAT), we collaborate with Pinnacle Health Management (PHM) to offer curriculum-based care management programs at no cost to employees with chronic care conditions. These conditions include Asthma, Hypertension, High Cholesterol, Weight Management, Depression, and Diabetes. Our care management programs are included with every WGAT health plan purchased.

At the beginning of the year, we launched our Uplift: Overcoming Depression program to provide additional mental health support for our members. While enrolled in the program, participants learn to better understand depression, along with its signs, symptoms, treatment, and support options. They also receive supportive resources, including monthly coping tools, curriculum-guided phone calls, and collaborative goal-setting.

Additionally, we recently launched HEIDI (Health Evaluation Interactive Discovery Intelligence), a text-based, artificial intelligence chatbot that provides on-demand support to help employees and their dependents manage stress levels and maintain mental balance. HEIDI is available in English and Spanish and comes at no cost to participants of WGAT and their dependents.

In the age of COVID-19, it is important for all of us to do our part in raising awareness about depression, supporting mental health, and promoting a healthy and balanced life. If you don’t have the WGAT plan, which includes a care management program with every plan, contact Western Growers Insurance Services for more information and to see how it can help you better manage your health care costs. You can reach a sales team member at (800) 333-4WGA.


In addition to serving as executive vice president of Western Growers Assurance Trust, David Zanze is the president of Pinnacle Claims Management, Inc.