Most of us have embraced the fact that the pandemic has both 1) taken a toll on our mental health and 2) increased awareness of the importance of mental wellbeing. Measuring the engagement, frequency, and impact on workforce wellbeing is another matter, but good data is available.
Industry expert Dr. Mark Attridge has spoken and published a lot on workplace-based mental health. His most recent Trends in Workplace Mental Health survey involving 351 industry respondents showed 89% agreement that “employees are more open now to talking about mental health issues in general than before the pandemic.” That openness resulted in a 41% increase in Employee Assistance Program (EAP) participation since the onset of the covid pandemic, to 10.6% annual utilization. Related, an article published by the National Behavioral Consortium reported EAP calls for anxiety spiking as high as 70%. The results Attridge reported generally concur with a similar 2021 survey conducted by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans on Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Benefits. Both surveys document the over 90% increase in telehealth counseling from in-person care—plus increased use of other technologies including phone, screening tools, online education, and machine apps. The strong agreement for more collaboration between traditional EAPs and tech-based providers is outlined in the graph below.
A recent article in Forbes by One Mind at Work Co-Founder and Chairman, Garen Staglin, titled Measuring Progress on Workplace Mental Health emphasizes the point well: “Leaders who prioritize mental health understand the importance of measuring and tracking improvements in programs.”
So, we recognize the increased awareness of and participation in behavioral health. But, what more specifically can we learn to guide our wellness, recruiting, engagement, and organizational health objectives? One historically reliable source is Wellness Checkpoint, now a Carebook assessment offering, and the anonymized data they have accumulated from 80+ multinational employer customers. It’s fascinating to explore their rolling 5-year database of over 625,000 participants and the benchmarks available before and during covid—from 2019 to mid-2021. From general wellness surveys to deeper dives on resilience, financial health, psychological wellbeing, and psycho/social stress; the data paint a picture that further guide wellness strategies.
Presented at the Wellness Checkpoint User Forum at the end of 2021, founder and wellness pioneer extraordinaire, Zorianna Hyworon, presented a synopsis of her observations of the data. We hear stories and sometimes joke about increased use of alcohol to help cope with covid-related adjustments, but this was not supported in the data. In fact with very few exceptions (Thailand, Philippines), an excess use of alcohol during this period was not manifested in the data. Similarly, we think of the financial hardships many experienced through the pandemic but neither was that supported in the data of the mostly large global customers served. On the other hand, depression (measured by PHQ9) and anxiety (measured by GAD7) did show significant increases from 2019 through mid-2021. The number of employees assessed as moderately to severely depressed grew to 7.7% of the total, which compares with the World Health Organization’s estimate of 5% of adults globally. On top of the Wellness Checkpoint customer increase to 7.7% of employees with moderate to severe risks for depression is another 17% reporting mild depression.
Depression has been consistently under-diagnosed and under-treated, particularly outside of North America where employees in most countries don’t have access to behavioral health providers or related financial coverage. An increased frequency of depression was recognized in the data even before 2019, but covid served as a sort of amplifier of that movement already underway. And with the current strife in Ukraine and surrounding countries, we can expect the frequency of depression to continue to climb. Further, the increase in depression is even more significant in its high correlation with organizational stress (measured by SSOS). Where work stress and job satisfaction increase, depression also increases, notably in Brazil, Canada, and the Philippines in Wellness Checkpoint’s benchmark data. Conversely, when job stress and satisfaction decreased, the frequency of depression also declined, as evidenced most notably for employees in India over this period.
For those interested in hearing Zorianna’s insightful review of these data directly, a recording of the Users Forum is offered at this link. The discussion around Zorianna’s presentation included Wolf Kirsten at the Global Centre for Healthy Workplaces, and wellness leaders at GlaxoSmithKline, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, and other ‘culture of health’-minded employers can also be heard.
Business Management guru Peter Drucker is attributed with what’s become a cliché, “If you can’t measure it you can’t improve [manage] it.” Now that so many more employers have found compassion and discovered the importance of mental wellbeing, let’s apply Drucker’s admonishment and quantify that compassion to improve our programs further.