Warmer weather and the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines are raising the hopes and spirits of many Massachusetts residents. A range of mental health impacts of COVID remain an issue, however, according to the Department of Public Health’s COVID-19 Community Impact Survey.

The percentage of adult respondents who reported poor mental health was three times higher than those reporting poor mental health in the 2019 Massachusetts Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey. In the recent DPH survey, one in three adults reported experiencing 15 or more days of poor mental health, including stress, depression and problems with emotions, during the previous 30 days.

All demographic groups in Massachusetts are experiencing mental health impacts, according to the DPH report, released in early March.

The population facing the highest impacts are those with disabilities. Other populations reporting the highest rates of 15 or more days of poor mental health include those who are of transgender experience, nonbinary or questioning their gender identity; LGBQ+ respondents; multiracial, American Indian/Alaska Native and Hispanic/Latinx respondents; those between the ages of 25 and 34; and those earning less than $35,000.

Respondents with poor mental health were:
• Twice as likely to have delays in health care
• 2.4 times more likely to have a change in employment in order to take care of a child or children
• 2.6 times more likely to worry about getting medication
• Twice as likely to be “very worried” about getting COVID
• Two to three times more likely to worry about the following basic needs: health care, technology and child care
• 2.5 times more likely to worry about expenses/bills
• Two to three times more likely to request resources that would be helpful to them

Employee mental health experienced a significant downturn nationwide during this past winter, according to a Feb. 17 article in Wellable.

“Unfortunately, despite the promising news of vaccine distribution, employees are not getting more hopeful,” the article states. “December 2020 marked the lowest levels of employee mental well-being, according to the Mental Health Index by Total Brain and the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions. … Overall employee focus plummeted by 62%, the worst drop in one year.”

When employees are depressed, the article reports, work suffers considerably. The authors noted that when workers are this mentally and emotionally strained, they simply cannot perform well.

Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that poor mental health will cost employers nearly $6 trillion by 2030.

How employers can help
Lingering COVID concerns and adjusting to a “new normal” likely means that mental health concerns will remain an issue. The first step for employers to help ease the situation, experts suggest, is to create a culture that is open and supportive, so people feel comfortable asking for and getting help when they need it.

Making sure employees are aware of and can easily access an employee assistance program is one step. Another is allowing for and encouraging dialogue between supervisors, managers and staff so everyone feels comfortable sharing their personal needs for support.

Demonstrating this openness can come in many forms, such as having online support groups for employees or making mental health professionals available during all-hands calls to talk about mental health and to dispel myths.

Employers may consider programs such as MIIA’s WellAware, which has a comprehensive suite of online, onsite, self-directed and telephonic options in all areas of well-being. MIIA’s Learn to Live offers customized online programs based on the proven principles of cognitive behavioral therapy, which can be very effective.

An article last August in the Harvard Business Review notes that bosses can demonstrate that they are vulnerable by acknowledging what has brought them discomfort during these times. The article also suggests modeling healthy behaviors, such as sharing that you’re taking a walk in the middle of the day, having a therapy appointment, or prioritizing a staycation.

Additional tips for employers include:
• Hosting online mental health webinars on topics such as grief, anxiety, and substance use
• Rebranding “sick days” to “wellness days” to encourage employees to use those days for emotional as well as physical health
• Offering an employee health plan that is progressive on mental health and substance use disorder benefits
• Offer benefits and resources that support caregivers, and provide education on personal finance to help employees that are feeling lost amid major life changes and events

With the weather getting nicer, managers can address social isolation by holding small outdoor gatherings with safety protocols in place.

We’ve all been living through strange and difficult times. The pandemic has created a range of stressful and challenging situations for most everyone. Empathy, kindness and offering support are the top ways to help yourself and your employees get through this period.

Written by Joyce McMahon, freelance writer