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Employee Assistance Programs could get more workers mental health care

Meghan McCarty Carino Oct 9, 2020
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Bymuratdeniz/Getty Images
COVID-19

Employee Assistance Programs could get more workers mental health care

Meghan McCarty Carino Oct 9, 2020
Heard on:
Bymuratdeniz/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

The pandemic has brought unprecedented health hazards, financial insecurity and isolation that is causing a mental health crisis. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey of Americans over the summer found a significant increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression, substance abuse and suicidal thinking. Most companies offer workers free mental health services through an Employee Assistance Program. While use of these programs has historically been very low, there’s evidence of increased interest in the services during the pandemic.

About six years ago, when Joseph Kosowski was working in customer support for a tech company, he started having panic attacks — though he didn’t know that’s what they were. He went to urgent care where they told him he was essentially fine. But he didn’t feel fine, so he stopped going to work.

“And I got an email from my HR person, saying, ‘You know, we noticed you missed a few days of work in a row and here are some resources in case you need anything,'” he said.

Kosowski called his company’s Employee Assistance Program, and was quickly referred to a therapist for several free sessions where he was diagnosed with anxiety.

“And, boy, that was sure a lifeline that they threw me,” he said.

About 60% of full-time workers are eligible for this type of benefit according to federal data. But typically only about 10% of them actually use the services.

The pandemic is presenting new obstacles to accessing care for many workers, like an anonymous employee for a national nonprofit who didn’t want to use her real name for the same reason she doesn’t want to use her Employee Assistance Plan.

“I just don’t want to open the opportunity to be seen as not able to deal with things,” she said, referring to significant job cuts at her company that have made her feel vulnerable.

Lisa Frydenlund with the Society for Human Resources Management said like with any therapy, what’s talked about in a session is confidential. She encourages managers to normalize issues of mental health.

“There’s been such a stigma,” she said. “But being able to talk about it and to acknowledge it is so important.”

That is increasingly happening, she said, because so much of the trauma of the pandemic has been shared.

An SHRM survey in June found a third of companies had experienced a significant increase in requests for information about Employee Assistance Programs during the pandemic.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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