Employers’ biggest worry: A breakdown in mental health

Results from the Unum Group employer survey, September 21, 2020
Thoughtful repose

It doesn’t take much imagination to predict that parents who have already spent five months working at home with children present — or trying to find child care while schools and daycares were closed — might soon reach a breaking point as the pandemic drags on. A troubling 85% of employers we surveyed in August are concerned about their employees’ mental health and wellness amid school-schedule disruptions this fall.

How concerned are you with your employees' mental health or wellness needs as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact life?

  •  85% Somewhat or very concerned
  •  8% Neither concerned nor unconcerned
  •  7% Not very or not at all concerned

Almost half (49%) put employee mental health in their top three concerns, often citing the ongoing stress of “trying to juggle everything” — and the anxiety and depression that can result. Female employees have been especially hard hit by school disruptions, erasing gains in equality and endangering their families’ financial well-being.

As evidence of the mounting pressure, more than half (58%) of employers said employees had been increasing their use of the mental health or wellness benefits offered at work, and two-thirds (67%) said they thought usage would increase even more in the coming months.

How much do you anticipate the usage of existing mental health or wellness benefits will change in the coming months among your employees?

  •  67% Increase
  •  20% No change
  •  7% Decrease
  •  6% Not sure

Many indicators of employee stress were worrying global mental health experts even before the pandemic. “Lifestyle and stress-related illnesses had been surpassing communicable diseases, and burnout was reclassified by the World Health Organization as a workplace condition and occupational risk rather than a health condition,“ according to Dr. Kristen Lee, Lead Faculty for Behavioral Science at Northeastern University.

The pandemic has accelerated the arrival of the crisis, and coping with it is now a business-critical issue.

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“We all have to remember that we’re supporting people through a crisis,” says Tim Arnold. “Work/life balance has blurred, isolation can take an emotional toll, childcare and elder care have become more difficult and dealing with these new challenges has impacted productivity. These circumstances require all employers to creatively — and compassionately — develop programs, services and benefits to help employees through this unexpected moment in history.”

Fortunately, nearly two in three (61%) employers have plans or offerings in place that specifically address their employees’ mental health needs. The most frequently mentioned offerings include counseling or therapy — often on site and employer-paid; employee assistance programs (EAPs); helplines/hotlines; telemedicine; and additional time off.

What specific plans or offerings are in place to address employees' mental health needs?

Selected responses

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Flexibility/work-life balance

  • Flexible work schedules
  • Reduced work hours
  • Flexibility to work from home
  • On-site space for kids to learn
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Counseling and well-being services/benefits

  • On-site counseling services/therapy
  • Access to clergy
  • Reimbursement for outside services
  • Group classes/webinars/support groups
  • EAPs
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  • Meditation rooms/relaxation spaces
  • Workout rooms
  • Comfortable work spaces
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Enhanced compensation/benefits

  • More paid time off
  • More breaks
  • Expanded health, life, disability and wellness benefits
  • Telemedicine coverage
  • Emergency financial assistance
  • Added pay/bonus pay
  • Targeted assistance, like meal delivery and faster internet access for home workers
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Other initiatives

  • Management communication and support/manager training
  • Periodic health and wellness check-ins/employee hotline
  • Morale-boosting efforts/company retreat after pandemic subsides/job-security assurances

These benefits will be critical well into 2021. Because fall is also typically the height of enrollment season, some are concerned that the recent shift to virtual and hybrid worksites will complicate how employees enroll in their benefits. Read on to learn how some employers are changing their communication strategies as a result.

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About the survey

We surveyed 409 employers from August 12 to August 20, 2020, with roughly 100 responses coming from employers in each of four employee-size categories: 1 to 99, 100 to 499, 500 to 1,999 and 2,000+. Respondents were limited to persons involved in employee benefits decision-making or administration at U.S.-based organizations representing a wide variety of industries.

Additional resources

  • Podcast: Mental well-being in the age of COVID-19, Part 1
  • Article: Keep stress in check while quarantining