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April 20, 2022

Family Mental Health: Equipping Employees to Be at Their Best

8 minute read

Family Wellbeing Workplace Wellbeing

Written by

Melanie Wagner, PhD avatar

Melanie Wagner, PhD

This is Part 1 of our Family Wellbeing blog series.

We’re in the third year of a global pandemic that elevated anxiety, addiction, and depression—and there’s a good chance your employees are tired. 

Many have been balancing work with young kids at home, teens who are dealing with social media-driven stress, or elderly parents who are at a higher risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms—all in the midst of a loneliness epidemic. 

We’re also in a highly competitive hiring market, as employees leave unhealthy work environments for companies that can give them the diversity, sense of belonging, work/life balance, and mental health support they want and need. 

So, it’s not surprising that mental health is at its lowest among the American working public. There is a lot happening behind your virtual employee’s screen and beyond the smile of your frontline worker, and they can only be at their best when their family members are mentally healthy, too.

Mental health struggles are a family affair

The far-reaching impact of COVID has increased our need for mental health support, and prioritizing this critical benefit is essential for employers to attract and retain top talent. 

According to the 2021 State of Mental Health In America report, anxiety and depression have reached the highest levels since the pandemic began, while substance abuse continues to worsen. 

Highly correlated with increased anxiety, depression, and substance abuse among adult workers is the marked overall decrease in adolescent mental health. Recent research covering 80,000 youth globally found that depression and anxiety doubled during the pandemic, with 25% of youth experiencing depressive symptoms and 20% experiencing anxiety symptoms. 

Teen mental health

The increase in worry from the pandemic, the news, and first-hand experiences has taken a great toll on our youth. Adolescent and younger children often create a support network with their friends, and school closures, daycare interruptions, and hybrid education have contributed to a loss of socialization.  

Everyone, especially younger children, need play in their lives—time to let their minds wander and their bodies move without limitations (like a mask, social distancing, or virtual-only school).  

According to research used in the Attorney General’s report, anxiety and depression rates were higher in families who lived in urban areas where COVID outbreaks were higher and lockdowns more severe. The same correlation was found in young people whose family members are frontline workers.  

Additionally, when parents and caregivers are continually forced to revise their work schedules, responsibilities, and expectations, stress and anxiety rises for them. The impact is also felt by adolescents and young children in the households that rely on structure and routine for comfort and a sense of stability.

When one member of the family struggles, the entire family feels it. This is one of the many reasons Spring Health offers comprehensive mental health support for employees and their family members, ages six and up, with the ability to schedule an appointment with a therapist within two days. 

Let’s take a look at how anxiety disorders, increased substance abuse, and elevated depression are impacting families, and how HR leaders can provide greater support for employees in each of these areas. 

Understanding anxiety disorders

While anxiety is a common reaction to stress, anxiety disorders involve excessive fear or anxiety. They are the most common mental disorder, affecting nearly 30% of adults. Anxiety disorders are often overlooked or mistaken for overwhelm. 

Anxiety has become so much a part of modern life that it’s been normalized, and quick fixes for it have been normalized, too. Since people tend to talk about their anxiety more openly than other disorders, employers sometimes view it as a natural emotional response, and are unaware of the complex struggle. 

But anxiety disorders can be debilitating, and escalate into substance abuse or depression. 

How HR leaders can help

Whether an employee or a member of their family is dealing with excessive anxiety, there are several ways that HR departments can provide support.

The first critical step is to regularly check in with your team and ask about their wellbeing. The signs can be subtle, and while some will talk openly about anxiety, others have learned to hide it quite well. 

Next, consider developing programs that provide outlets for energy: virtually, on-site, or off-site. Many HR departments have created unique experiences in collaboration with local communities, such as workout classes, dance, or art with a purpose.  

If your organization is partnered with Spring Health, all employees have access to Moments. This is a library of clinically-validated exercises, based in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques, that can help across a spectrum of conditions and common stressors—including anxiety and sleep anxiety.  

Finally, encourage your employees to connect with a therapist through your EAP or mental health benefit. Therapists can help uncover the root cause of worry and fear, reframe thoughts that are driving anxiety, and develop effective coping skills. 

Understanding substance use disorders

Anxiety, depression, and other factors can lead to a compulsive dependence on a substance or substances. Many therapists report clients stating they just needed to have that drink to numb how they’re feeling—an escape from the tensions brought on by life at work or at home.  

A staggering 25% of essential workers and 13% of all workers increased substance use as a result of the pandemic, and there’s been a decrease in new patients starting treatment. A new report found that higher rates of substance abuse is contributing to the slower-than-expected labor market rebound.

Substance use issues do not discriminate based on age, race, education, income, or any other factor. Over 20 million Americans suffer from Alcohol Use Disorders, and alcohol remains the third leading cause of death among adults.

Substance abuse by parents is highly correlated to future abuse by their children, and children are also impacted when they’re required to be responsible for adult responsibilities the parent is unable to perform. 

How HR leaders can help

Recovery from substance abuse disorders is possible with quality healthcare and guidance, and HR leaders can provide both. 

The first step is to recognize the signs. None of these are exclusive to people suffering with an SUD, so view these as indicators only:

  • Frequent absence
  • Declining job performance
  • Accidents and near-accidents
  • Poor concentration
  • Poor judgment

The stigma surrounding substance use disorders makes it a sensitive subject to surface, and more so in the workplace. Any employee you confront may react negatively. 

Here are some best-practices for talking to an employee about a possible issue:

  • Don’t meet with an employee without documented evidence
  • Respect their privacy by having one-on-one conversations in a calm, private environment that helps them feel safe
  • Ask questions that give the employee an opportunity to reach out to you for help, like, “You’ve missed quite a few days of work and I’ve noticed you aren’t yourself lately. Is everything okay?”
  • Expect and accept denial—it’s unlikely that employees will admit to having a substance use disorder, especially in the workplace
  • Be compassionate and reasonable—independence from drugs and alcohol cannot happen overnight
  • Offer resources and solutions

It’s most important for people with an SUD to talk to a healthcare professional to determine the right path of care. Employers who offer benefit packages and additional accommodations report having less absenteeism, turnover, and medical claims. 

Providing a psychologically safe environment to treat substance abuse creates an opportunity for employers to retain valuable employees and grow a more productive and engaged workforce.

Go deeper into substance use disorder support that works for your employees.

Understanding depression

Most people experience ups and downs in life. But if feelings of emptiness or despair take hold and interfere with someone’s ability to function at work, they may be experiencing depression. 

Depression can be defined as a “mood or emotional state that is marked by feelings of low self-worth or guilt.” These feelings often result in a reduced ability to enjoy facets of everyday living, including work, family, and friends.  

The depression rate has tripled among US adults since the pandemic began, likely impacting your employees and their families. How can employees be fully engaged at work if they themselves or a member of their family feels unworthy or detached from life?

How HR leaders can help

As with substance use disorders, it’s important for leaders to identify the signs of depression in the workplace. These include:

  • Feelings of sadness over long periods
  • Extreme irritability over seemingly minor things
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Difficulty sleeping, waking up early or oversleeping
  • Decreased energy or fatigue

Normalize depression by talking about it, including resources in company emails and newsletters, and making mental health a priority within your organization. If an employee shares with you that they are depressed, acknowledge and validate how they’re feeling and ask questions to find out what they need and how the company can support them. 

This could include flexible working hours if they’re having trouble with sleep, or taking things off their plate if they’re feeling overwhelmed. Depression often negatively affects one’s ability to process, think, and make decisions.  
Some employees, or their family members, may suffer from deep depression that has resulted in a feeling of hopelessness. Encourage these employees to utilize your company’s EAP or mental health wellness benefits to seek therapy.  

Watch this video to discover our streamlined experience for family mental health care, including therapy for children as young as six years old. 

Watch the Video

About the Author

Melanie Wagner, PhD avatar

Melanie Wagner, PhD

Melanie Wagner is a writer and editor. Along with scholarly work, she has written a non-fiction children’s book about escaping bullying and finding love and acceptance in unexpected places. She received her BA in professional and technical writing, her MA in English and Ed Leadership, and her PhD in criticism and theory of literature. Melanie describes herself as a lifelong learner and loves to teach, even though she is currently a retired professor.