For those lucky enough to keep their jobs during the pandemic, more than half a year of working from home has tested the nerves of many. An unsettled workforce is placing new focus on the need for companies to provide expanded mental health resources to employees.
According to a recent report, more than 40% of adults in the U.S. are dealing with depression, anxiety and even substance abuse linked to the coronavirus pandemic. A recent survey by Johns Hopkins University found the percentage of adults in the U.S. who reported symptoms of psychological distress jumped threefold from 2018 to April of this year.
To combat the negative mental effects of the pandemic, more companies, particularly in tech, are realizing that mental health support beyond clinical offerings in standard benefit packages is increasingly indispensable instead of nice-to-have perks.
Mental health care is becoming a "fourth pillar" for employee benefits, alongside medical, dental and vision, said Alyson Friedensohn, CEO and founder of Modern Health, a San Francisco company that helps employers to connect their workers with a variety of mental health resources, including sessions with coaches and therapists.
Requests for her company's software have skyrocketed during shelter-in-place, she added, noting that even companies that have slashed jobs during the economic turmoil of the pandemic realized the need to connect workers with help.
Benefits like Modern Health involve some increased spending by employers. It charges a monthly fee per employee, based on how many sessions companies want, if families are included and other factors. The company says the service is more expensive than typical employee assistance programs but is more likely to get used by workers who need help.
Udemy, the San Francisco online learning company, signed up for Modern Health in part to ensure employees can access help they need quickly. (Some patients using conventional health care providers have complained of long waits for appointments; Modern Health promises instant bookings with coaches and a two-day wait for therapists.)
Udemy has also focused on connection and community building to fight feelings of isolation brought on by the pandemic. In May, employees created a group focused on mental health, Shelley Osborne, Udemy's vice president of learning, said in an email.
Brex, a San Francisco financial services company, has also focused on forging virtual bonds between employees. The group organized a virtual tour of an alpaca farm for kids and parents that allowed families to see nature while stuck at home. An entertainer performed as Elsa from Disney's "Frozen" films for the children of employees.
At Menlo Park drone technology firm Kespry, which went remote in February before local authorities mandated it, combating isolation includes listening to what employees need, according to CEO George Mathew. That might involve winning some of your co-workers' money.
Mathew said he set up a channel on his company's Slack discussion board for his employees to make suggestions. That has resulted in adopting proposals like more flexible working hours, particularly for parents dealing with remote schooling. Other ideas, like a virtual poker tournament, have also helped bring people together, he said.
"I didn't come up with the idea," Mathew said, adding employees suggested the online tournament as a way to relax and have fun after intense quarterly business reviews. "The important thing is making things mandatory doesn't help," he said. "It has to be more grassroots."
Creating personal resilience during cascading crises is what these kinds of activities are about, said Dr. Terry Gilliland, executive vice president of health care quality and affordability at Blue Shield of California.
That starts with keeping a normal daily routine of showering and dressing in the morning, Gilliland said. He sets aside time to read before diving into work.
"I need that little moment of meditation in the morning," he said.
Physical exercise is also key, Gilliland added. Blue Shield offers live virtual kickboxing and yoga classes that get employees moving after a day on the computer and also help them feel nearer to co-workers.
Feeling cut off from friends and co-workers can lead to spiraling negativity, said Neda Gould, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
"We don't have some of the distractions we'd otherwise have to deal with," like going to the gym or a social gathering, Gould said. She conducts guided meditation courses multiple times a week over Zoom as a way for faculty and others to relive stress and improve mental well-being.
On a recent Monday more than a dozen participants were tiled across a computer screen, their eyes closed and smiling serenely as Gould sat outside and talked them through steps to relax their bodies and let their thoughts come and go peacefully.
"When we're isolated we don't have control over what pops into our heads," which often leads to more anxiety and depression, Gould said. "The aspects of our lives that motivate us and make us happy have been stripped away" and practices like meditation can help to regain some control.
It's not clear that Bay Area employers are doing enough, however.
Half of the more than 1,000 workers from mostly Bay Area companies who responded to a survey about how their employers are supporting them said they feel their companies could be doing more to bolster their mental and overall health during the pandemic. The poll was conducted for The Chronicle by Blind, an app that lets workers talk about their companies anonymously.
More than half of the employees who responded — from companies that include Apple, Amazon and LinkedIn — said they are not getting the help they need.
A third of the more than 850 mostly tech workers who answered another Blind survey question said they felt more isolated and less of a sense of community than when they were working mostly from their office.
Lacking that sense of belonging and community at work can also have an impact on productivity, according to BetterUp, a San Francisco professional training and coaching company.
A BetterUp survey found that employees who feel a strong sense of belonging tend to have better job performance, are at a lower risk of looking for a new job and even take fewer sick days.
The San Francisco financial health company Digit has sought to recreate that sense of belonging and community that was lost during the pandemic.
Virtual trivia nights and more all-hands meetings have filled some of that void, but there is no substitute for just talking to one another as much as possible, said Carolyn Satenberg, the company's head of people.
"We need to default to overcommunication," she said.
Digit is training managers to have frequent check-ins with employees and encouraging people to take time off wherever they feel they need it.
Communicating with employees about the health of the company during such a volatile time can also decrease worries about job cuts and associated stress, according to Osborne of Udemy.
According to the Blind survey, a little less than a third of the more than 800 mostly tech employees who responded to a question about job security said they are worried about losing their job during the pandemic. Another quarter said it was a possible concern.
Child care is also a significant source of stress for many parents, who now share their home offices with children, many of whom are attending classes virtually.
It has also been a point of contention at some companies during the pandemic: Some childless workers feel those with kids are given more flexibility and benefits while they keep up the same tempo of work.
Sara Mauskopf is the CEO of Winnie, a San Francisco software company that helps parents find child care resources. She is a mother of three and knows better than most the stress of parenting coupled with work duties. Mauskopf has chosen to pay stipends to employees to use for home office expenses or increased child care needs.
"For companies who are in a position to provide additional benefits and support, I feel like the best thing that we can provide is money," she said, noting the company gave $100 to each its 40-some employees. "Giving (employees) a stipend for office expenses or for child care is one of the fastest, easiest and most appreciated ways to help," Mauskopf added.
Larger companies have handed out larger stipends during the pandemic, with Facebook reportedly giving each employee $1,000, amounting to tens of millions of dollars.
Benefits and company assistance can help those stuck at home to cope, but only when underpinned by realistic expectations about when things will return to normal, according to Dr. Gilliland of Blue Shield.
"We need a really strong sense of optimism while at the same time recognizing this reality," that there is no clear end in sight to the pandemic, Gilliland said. He compared the psychological situation during the pandemic to that of prisoners of war who convince themselves their ordeal will end on a set date, only to be emotionally crushed when it does not.
"To me it's all about being present in your moment," Gilliland said. "That's the only thing we actually can do."
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