The next big challenge COVID created is the emotional impact of all the trauma it’s created.  The masks are off, but the anxiety and depression are still there.

The data make the point. By the end of 2021, one in three American adults suffered from depression. Over 5.5% reported having serious thoughts of suicide, a jump of 664,000 people from 2018. Globally, we’ve seen 53 million more cases of major depressive disorders and 76 million more cases of anxiety disorder.

It’s a shared societal problem and employers have one of the biggest stakes (and opportunities) in providing a solution. The mental health of employees has an effect on productivity, absenteeism and retention, not to mention it’s a comorbidity of most chronic illnesses. More, providing effective solutions is integral to the employer’s pact with its workers.

National best practices show an employers’ best response is a program built around six best practices:

1. Raise awareness, reduce the stigma.

Building awareness of the emotional health struggles many share goes a long way to reducing the stigma. This requires top-down support, training managers to better recognize and respond to issues, and encouraging the conversation at every level. Reinforce the message that maintaining employee mental health is a core value. Video interviews of leaders sharing personal stories can help de-stigmatize the use of resources. It’s also worth noting that only 25% of organizations leverage the power of C-suite-led communications, despite its proven effectiveness.

2. Manage the work, environment and culture stressors.

What affects employee workplace stress? Low salaries (56%); long hours (54%); lack of growth opportunities (52%). Every organization should take a serious look at how its work environment adds to or subtracts from the overall conditions behind today’s mental health crisis. Manage them through employee involvement in organizational decision-making. Also important is work-life integration, like supporting flexible work schedules or providing assistance with child and eldercare needs. Providing a healthy work environment – like alternate spaces that encourage collaboration/social interaction – can help, too.

3. Assess the needs, but also measure outcomes of interventions.

There is no single mental health issue, nor is there a single “best” solution. The most effective support initiatives are grounded in insights into the overall health of the organization, captured through employee feedback and claims data. Over time, these measures and their outcomes show what’s having an impact – or not. Likely areas to focus on: Workplace outcomes, like absenteeism, productivity, motivation, and retention rates. Specific health improvements are another. While 94% of leaders call mental health a key pillar of their wellness strategy, only 31% measure the value employees get from these benefits. It makes the point: What isn’t measured isn’t managed.

Employers of every size have a role to play in addressing the deepening mental health crisis. A limited start, following one or two best practices that are most do-able for the individual employer’s circumstances, can make an important difference.”

4. Get behind evidence-based, high-quality mental health care

Approaches to care should be safe, effective, patient-centered, timely, efficient and equitable – and scientifically based. Access can be through health plans, EAPs and other partnerships with mental health care providers, eased through reduced co-pays and other actions. Programs should span mental health and substance abuse prevention and treatment services. By raising awareness through multiple strategies, stigma will be reduced, timeliness and equity of access will improve. Over 80% of employees thought an awareness campaign would counter the stigma, but only 23% of employers had put one in place.

5. A comprehensive wellness program must include mental health and well-being.

The link between mental health and the risk to physical health makes it imperative to integrate mental health initiatives into an overarching wellness program. Start by recognizing the eight dimensions of wellness linked to mental health and well-being, and use them as the basis of efforts. Among these dimensions are emotional wellness (think lifestyle coaching), intellectual wellness (career development and coaching), and financial wellness (guidance on budgeting and financial goal setting). In addition to dedicated funding, goals and measurable objectives must be set. Surveys show employers are increasingly answering the call: In 2021, 92% of employers expanded support for mental health and emotional well-being under their overall wellness benefits, as they expanded total budgets for well-being programs by about 22% from 2020 levels.

6. Partner with local and national organizations to share mental health and wellbeing resources

Everyone benefits through community partnerships. Expanded ties also make more convenient and cost-effective resources available. They also encourage greater volunteerism by employees – which has been shown to improve mental health and well-being outcomes. Further, by sharing their experiences and successes with these partners, the learning ecosystem for mental health organizations is enriched. Joining forces provides new opportunities to collaborate and be part of the solution.

Employers of every size have a role to play in addressing the deepening mental health crisis, and it doesn’t take a full-blown, expensive initiative to take on the challenge. Even a limited start, following one or two best practices that are most do-able for the individual employer’s circumstances, can make an important difference.