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Blue @ Work

Support your essential workers' mental health

They're likely struggling.

Rates of behavioral health conditions among millennials are rising by double digits, with a 12 percent increase in major depression alone. Read more about how COVID-19 has had a negative impact on millennials mental health by downloading the Supporting the behavioral health of your millennial employees External Site mini whitepaper by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.

When the coronavirus pandemic upended every aspect of normal life in the spring of 2020, the country’s workforce fractured. There were office workers who were sent home to work remotely and help stop the spread of the virus; tens of millions laid off from work or temporarily furloughed; and workers who were deemed essential by the federal and state governments to keep society running at a base level.

These essential or frontline workers External Site make up nearly half the workforce External Site. Essential fields include child care, agriculture, food production and food processing, critical retail like grocery and general merchandise stores, janitorial and maintenance, manufacturing, trucking, construction, sanitation and transportation — in addition to health care employees like doctors, nurses, pharmacists, lab technicians, and clinic or hospital support staff.

Essential workers also happen to make up a significant portion of the lower-waged workforce. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 90 percent of workers External Site in the bottom 25th percentile of income don’t have the ability to work from home and keep themselves safe. A study from the University of Massachusetts External Site shows these workers, in particular, are struggling with stress Opens in a new window, burnout, nightmares, and insomnia.

A mental health crisis with physical health side effects

Though the pandemic has exacerbated mental health challenges worldwide, essential workers have been one of the hardest-hit populations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports than more than half of all essential workers External Site have experienced mental health issues in the last few months — 25 percent more than the general population.

One of the main reasons for the uptick is work-related stress. Before the pandemic, experiencing stress on the job wasn’t uncommon — but now, workers have been exposed to stress day after day for months on end for a variety of reasons External Site, including:

  • Concern about virus exposure at work
  • Uncertainty about employment status
  • Hazardous working conditions
  • Lack of paid sick leave
  • Challenging or combative External Site customers/patrons who don’t wear masks
  • Managing a different workload due to shortages
  • Watching coworkers get sick and sometimes die
  • Isolation from friends and family

Long-term stress doesn’t just affect your employees’ mental health — facing daily stress also puts them at risk for physical health issues External Site, like high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Research from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that more than half of American adults External Site (and 64 percent of frontline health care workers and their families) report that stress related to the pandemic has caused sleep problems, increased substance abuse, irritability, frequent headaches or stomachaches, poor appetite or overeating, and worsening chronic health conditions.

If any part of your business employs people who have had and continue to come into work every day during this pandemic, it’s crucial to reach out and show you care about them and their health — especially as this crisis doesn’t yet have an end in sight.

How to support your essential workers

While supporting your employees’ health should always be top of mind, it’s now more important than ever to ensure you have the right benefits in place and that your employees know about them.

Here are three things you can do to support your essential employees today:

  1. Ensure their safety.

    A significant concern and a major source of stress for your essential workers is the potential for contracting the virus while on the job — 68 percent of essential workers External Site are concerned about going to work. In addition to providing adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) as needed, you can provide reassurance that their safety is top-of-mind by:

    • Requiring employees and customers to wear masks Opens in a new window (even if there is no state or local mandate for them)
    • Encouraging sick employees to stay home with paid sick time
    • Rigorously cleaning frequently touched surfaces to reduce the spread of germs
    • Limiting the number of employees on-site to ensure proper social distancing
    • Screening employees daily before starting their shift (e.g. temperature checks, health questionnaires, etc.)
    • Placing hand-sanitizer stations in common areas to encourage good hygiene
  2. Reduce the stigma around mental health.

    Company leaders have an important role to play when it comes to normalizing the discussion around employee mental health. Because of the stigma that still surrounds mental health issues, most employees can’t identify what they’re experiencing. According to an annual MetLife study External Site about U.S. employee benefit trends, only 17 percent of employees say they feel depressed at work, while 41 percent report feeling at least five signs of depression. The same goes for burnout: only 30 percent of employees say they feel burned out at work, but 64 percent report feeling at least five signs of burnout. Having open, honest and authentic discussions about mental health can help reduce the stigma External Site and encourage your employees to get the help they may need. When your employees know they can count on you to support them, they’re much less likely to feel stressed about their situation. Following the Stress First Aid (SFA) External Site peer support model — asking questions, making statements, and taking action — can help guide these discussions.

  3. Make them aware of available resources.

    Employer-sponsored mental health resources like employee assistance programs or telemedicine are often underutilized External Site for several reasons: your employees either don’t know about them, are unsure about how to access them, or feel uncomfortable using them or asking for help. Encourage your workers to use the benefits you provide and communicate frequently about the resources that are available to them. Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield groups have access to:

    • Doctor On Demand® — a telehealth service that allows your employees to see a physician or mental health professional from wherever they are
    • Wellmark Wellness Center Powered by WebMD® ONE — offers guided well-being programs customized to suit your employees’ interests, needs, and health goals
    • BeWell 24/7SM — connects your employees with real people around the clock for health questions and more

Ready, set, let's talk wellness

On the "Track your Progress" tool on your Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield Wellness Assessment, we can gather a pulse on your population's emotional health and well-being. In 2019 alone, 64 percent of respondents mentioned stress negatively impacts their overall health and well-being.

More recently in May 2020, only a few months after the pandemic hit, our pulse survey in the Wellness Center showed that 33 percent of respondents believe COVID-10 negatively impacted their health.

Want more workplace well-being solutions for your unique employee population or advice for supporting your essential workforce during this time of crisis? Contact one of our employer health and well-being experts and receive a complimentary consultation Opens in a new window.

Questions? Contact your authorized Wellmark account representative, or email us at Send Email.