Unum study: Many unaware of mental health help at work amid COVID-19

Staff file photo / A Unum employee walks across Walnut Street in Chattanooga in front of the insurer's headquarters.
Staff file photo / A Unum employee walks across Walnut Street in Chattanooga in front of the insurer's headquarters.

A new report by Chattanooga-based insurer Unum says nearly half of employees in the U.S. aren't aware of mental health resources available at work, even as the coronavirus is upping stress.

"COVID-19 has certainly created this cultural shift in how we live and how we work, parent, go to school, socializing, connecting with families, or not," said Laurie Mitchell, Unum's assistant vice president for global well-being and health. "Everyone is trying to figure that out and adapt."

While the coronavirus has created more stress, the Unum report based on surveys of 1,210 working U.S. adults showed that 46% of employees say their employer doesn't offer an employee assistance program (EAP) related to mental health.

That's in spite of 2019 research among 400 human resource professionals in which 93% said their companies do offer such services and resources that often are part of a health or disability insurance plan, according to Unum.

"Awareness, education, and early intervention are important components of the adoption of mental health benefits and resources," said Mitchell.

On Thursday, a separate study reported by Time showed a surge in mental health distress during the pandemic.

That study found that more than one in four American adults met the criteria that psychologists use to diagnose serious mental distress and illness amid the pandemic. That represents a roughly 700% increase from pre-pandemic data collected in 2018.

Researchers at San Diego State University and Florida State University said the surge in mental distress is showing up across age and demographic groups, but that young adults and those with children experienced the most pronounced spikes, according to Time.

Mitchell said the timing of the Unum survey, which was taken in mid-March, is relevant given the pandemic and that COVID-19 has "created additional stressors for people that weren't there before."

Why many employees aren't aware of resources has to do with a lot of employers promoting those only once or twice a year while mental distress happens year-round, Mitchell said.

"It's important to place a priority on emotional well-being and mental health," she said. "It's making sure you're building awareness around resources that are available."

Mitchell said mental health resources can be tapped using telephonic or virtual means, much as is increasingly common during the pandemic with general medicine.

People can speak to a counselor over the phone or do a video chat, she said.

"Some do better who may not feel comfortable in an office, sitting in a waiting room, and the times may not work," the Unum official said. "The great thing is that it's far more convenient. You can do it in privacy at home at better times of the day."

Also, she said, some communities may not have enough mental health providers to meet demand and a person may have to wait for weeks to talk to a counselor.

In addition, Mitchell said, there are a lot of apps which are more self-directed and supplement traditional care which target specific mental health needs.

Some offices offer mental health first aid courses which teach about such issues so those people can become a resource for others in the workplace, she said. They don't treat people but get them to the right resource, Mitchell said.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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