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Photography contributed by Unum / Laurie Mitchell, assistant vice president of global well-being and health for Unum.

From back-to-back virtual meetings and working from home to cutting travel and juggling family needs, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended how people live and work, leaving many feeling overwhelmed, stressed or burned out.

"What people were perhaps already stressed or struggling with was really exacerbated during the pandemic," said Laurie Mitchell, Unum's assistant vice president of global well-being and health. "Historically, employers haven't focused as much on mental health, and that doesn't mean that they haven't had resources, but now they're talking about it."

(Read more: Chattanooga mental health experts share tips on dealing with grief, stress of holiday season amid COVID-19.)

The Chattanooga-based insurance company surveyed 1,500 full-time U.S. workers in October and found that 57% worried about their mental health due to COVID-19.

In a separate September survey of 400 U.S. employers, Unum found that 85% of employers said they were concerned with employees' mental health as a result of the pandemic, and two out of three companies anticipated an uptick in the use of mental health resources this fall.

Mitchell said one of the biggest components of Unum's mental health strategy centers on generating awareness and removing stigma, which in the past created barriers and limited how often people accessed resources.

"Then the other layer to all of this was the stigma that many people felt related to accessing mental health services, like 'I don't need it right now,' or 'that's not for me' kind of thinking. I think that really changed quite dramatically," she said.

Unum also began sharing employee stories as a way to engage employees and then link them to available services, she said.

"People's willingness to talk about it and ask for support was already changing pre-pandemic, because we're making an intentional effort to talk about it more," Mitchell said.

Resources for everyone

Representatives from BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee said that not long after the pandemic set in, the insurer began offering managers resources on how to better support their employees, including webinars from their employee assistance program and articles covering a range of topics, include guidance to coping with COVID-19 fears, tips for managing without the benefit of in-person interaction, and mental health first aid, which outlines how to recognize and respond to signs of distress.

"We've offered regular reminders about these resources over the past eight months through a variety of channels — in a series of articles on our employee intranet, in manager emails and in reminders offered during companywide and departmental meetings," representatives said in an email.

BlueCross also offers a suite of online tools for employees with topics that include coping with loneliness and social isolation, staying productive while working from home and tips on managing finances and handling child care during the COVID-19 crisis as well as access to counseling with licensed behavioral health professionals around-the-clock, 365 days a year.

The insurer also recently launched a partnership with a national network of dependent care providers to offer employees access to enhanced family supports and 24/7 back-up care at heavily discounted rates.

(Read more: Chattanooga parents find ways to cope as coronavirus persists.)

For employees with students, TutorMe is a free service for employees and their dependents that provides on-demand access to virtual tutors and is available 24/7 to assist students one-on-one in every subject, while another service, Learn to Live, is a confidential, online resource to help those struggling with stress, depression, sleeplessness or social anxiety.

More counseling

Like many employers, Unum already had an employee assistance program. Employees and their household members were able to access three free counseling sessions per year through the program, but the survey revealed that was insufficient.

"Employees told us this three visits just wasn't enough — it barely scratched the surface — and then cost becomes a barrier for some people to seek care," Mitchell said. "So by giving people more free visits, they can get more support for their issues or concerns and it's free, so it removes some of the financial barrier."

Starting in September, each household member — regardless of whether they were enrolled in the company's health plan — became eligible for six free counseling sessions per year per issue. For example, someone who is going through a divorce could use their six free sessions for that, and if they later developed anxiety they could receive another six sessions for that issue.

Unum also expanded the network of providers so employees wouldn't have to wait as long for a counseling appointment and would be able to access their counselor through their health plans if they wanted to continue with the same counselor after using the six free sessions.

"It's like any type of preventive service — the value that these types of programs bring is really widespread, not only to employees but to their family members, because a lot of the stress the stressors that people experience aren't limited to one person in the household," Mitchell said.

Boosting flexibility

Chestnut Funds co-founder and Managing Partner Steen Watson said the company embraces concepts that support work/life balance including an unlimited vacation policy for the company's 12 employees.

"If you are able to and if the work is done and you coordinate with your coworkers, then you have the ability to take time off," Watson said. "That can be a single day, it can be a week, it can be whatever people want to do — that's an important component to us."

While telework has always been an option at Chestnut Funds, a Chattanooga-based commercial real estate fund manager founded in 2012, Watson said everyone went remote at the onset of COVID-19. After the company invested in technology to improve their ability to communicate remotely, they noticed some immediate benefits for employees who don't live in Chattanooga. Now, everybody works as if they're remote even if they're in the office.

"We still have video calls even when the person is in the office next to me if the other person that we're talking to is not in the office," he said. "So it's really brought the folks who are not working in the office in parity with the folks who are in the office."

After receiving some employee feedback, Watson said the company cut back on the number of video conferences a bit.

"A day full of these video meetings gets to be a little exhausting, so we've tried to dial that back," he said.

But the biggest change for the company since the onset of COVID-19 was introducing a "flexible Friday" policy. The idea was inspired by research that suggests a four-day workweek can be more productive than the typical five-day week, Watson said. The nature of investment business made it hard to adopt that policy, so instead Chestnut Funds doesn't schedule internal meetings on Friday so employees can use that time to catch up on work or personal life.

"If someone is working on Friday, typically they'll have what amounts to a long, uninterrupted block of work time that winds up being quite productive, but it also gives them freedom," Watson said, adding that employees often use that time to schedule medical appointments, get haircuts or grocery shop.

"People say it's wonderful not having to do those sorts of things on the weekend and being able to sort of slip out on a Friday," he said. "This notion of flexibility really is, I think, sort of the linchpin for us in terms of wellness."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.

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