Mental Health Awareness Month has always marked an important time for employers to reflect on the mental well-being of their employees. But this May, against the backdrop of a global pandemic and widespread stay-at-home orders, employees have been confronted with a myriad of new, unprecedented challenges when it comes to balancing their remote work responsibilities and their own personal health.
With nearly two-thirds of Americans now working remotely, many of us are struggling to cope with an increasingly blended work-life world. Facing social isolation, financial hardships, and the obvious physical health concerns related to coronavirus, employees are feeling significantly more stressed than they were before COVID-19. In fact, MetLife’s 18th annual U.S. Employee Benefits Trends Study found that more than two-thirds of U.S. employees (67 percent) feel more stressed now than they did before the pandemic.
While the mental strain of our new reality has been significant for all generations, younger workers have been the hardest-hit – with millennial employees feeling the most stressed, tired, and burned out of any generation.
Given this apparent need for support, employers may want to start thinking about taking the necessary steps to boost employee mental health. In fact, our study found that nearly two-thirds of workers (65 percent) felt their employer wasn’t offering benefits or programs that currently support or improve their mental well-being. Likewise, a majority of Gen Z and millennials say they’re interested in a benefit that their employer doesn’t presently offer.
As pandemic-related stressors continue to mount, it’s becoming increasingly critical for employers to support the mental well-being of their struggling workforce. Here are a few helpful tips to get started:
1. Establish an open line of communication.
When it comes to improving mental health, helping employees understand their resources is key. For example, our survey found that 37 percent of millennials say their employer offers financial health programs, but they are difficult to access or understand. And comprehension matters – in fact, those who understand their benefits are 34 percent more likely to be holistically well than those who don’t. This suggests that narrowing the gap between employers’ offerings and employees’ understanding with targeted, ongoing communications is paramount to fostering well-being.
What’s more, reassuring employees that benefits can help prepare them for uncertainty – from future pandemics to stock market volatility – can also help them feel more secure and less stressed. Taking advantage of opportunities to host HR office hours and Q&A sessions, for instance, can be a great way to connect with employees on the importance of their benefits. Establishing an open line of communication through these channels and moments in time can also help break down the stigma that so often surrounds mental illness, stress and workplace burnout.
2. Help set clear boundaries between work and life.
MetLife’s study found that millennial employees were struggling the most out of any generation with navigating the balance between work and personal life. This might be a result of their increasing pressure to work longer hours due to the pandemic (one-quarter of millennials are working more, our study found), compounded by the fact that they are also the generation that’s currently finding it most difficult to “switch off” and stop thinking about work.
Employers must therefore help employees – and younger employees, in particular – establish clear boundaries between work and life. Encouraging them to maintain a normal routine as much as possible and find time for themselves can be great first steps, but offering emerging benefits – like sabbatical programs, fitness reimbursement, subsidized care options, and paid leave – can help engrain this sense of balance into the workplace culture more definitively, and can in turn have a lasting impact on employees’ mental health.
3. Improve mental well-being through holistic benefits.
Mental health is deeply intertwined with physical, social, and financial wellness. Even prior to the pandemic, there was a particularly strong relationship between financial health and mental health. In fact, MetLife’s study found that 43 percent of employees who aren’t mentally healthy say financial concerns are why they haven’t rated their mental health higher. This is particularly concerning for younger employees, who are more financially at risk – with 46 percent of Gen Z and 36 percent of millennials saying they now earn less as a result of COVID-19, compared with just 28 percent of Gen X and 20 percent of boomers.
By implementing comprehensive financial wellness programs like financial planning education programs and workshops, and offering the right benefits, employers can help their younger employees feel less anxious about their financial futures, boosting their health overall. Benefits like defined contribution retirement plans, life insurance, and short- and long-term disability can also help younger employees feel more secure in these unstable times.
It has become increasingly clear that COVID-19 may forever alter the workplace as we know it. Given today’s challenges aren’t likely to disappear any time soon, it’s essential for employers to adapt their mental health benefits strategies to meet employees’ changing needs – especially for younger workers who are struggling the most.