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Telehealth and the coronavirus crisis

April 1st, 2020


As the coronavirus crisis pandemic causes new levels of stress and isolation, workers are increasingly turning to their employer-provided mental health plans. In turn, employers are mobilizing to support their workers as they adapt to the new surreal reality of work life.
“The disruption in behavior and the uncertainty has led to a lot of anxiety,” says Russ Glass, CEO of Ginger, a virtual mental health support platform. “Obviously it’s a stressful time, and we’re seeing significant increases in sessions for therapy and psychiatry.”
Ginger and other mental health platforms offered by employers have noticed a surge in usage as employees turn to online tools to manage their anxiety. Glass, whose company connects users with behavioral health professionals for chat and video-based sessions, says they’ve reported a 25% uptick in therapy and psychiatry visits compared to Q1 averages. Modern Health, a virtual mental health app, reported a 50% increase in activity since the beginning of March.

Headspace, a mindfulness and meditation app which counts Google and LinkedIn as employer clients, has seen users completing calming meditations 13 times more often than in the previous month, and meditations targeted toward managing anxiety have climbed. Headspace has responded by creating a free content hub with guided meditations and mental health exercises for all its subscribers.
“This shifting landscape is affecting everyone,” says Rich Pierson, co-founder and CEO of Headspace. “To help people around the world deal with these unprecedented levels of stress, we are working hard to expand access to our meditation content to help folks manage anxious thoughts, build mental resilience and navigate through this uncertainty.”

Addressing mental health in this coronavirus crisis has been an increasing priority in the workplace, as more than half of the working population struggles with mental health issues related to anxiety and depression. Seventy-eight percent of companies offer an EAP with mental health resources, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Now more than ever, employers are relying on those programs to be a resource to employees who may be struggling.

“Even before coronavirus crisis, employers were really focusing on the mental health and well-being of their workforce,” says Kathleen O’Driscoll, vice president of Business Group on Health. “An EAP program is almost like a foundational block that many of them use to provide access to virtual sessions and other benefits available to them.”

Some 93% of companies have encouraged their workers to take advantage of EAP resources like telehealth and virtual mental health programs in response to the coronavirus crisis pandemic, according to a recent Business Group on Health survey.

Business Group on Health

“At moments like this when there’s a lot of anxiety and uncertainty, it’s the precise time many people feel the need to speak to a counselor or see a doctor,” says Karsten Vagner, vice president of people at Maven, a telemedicine network for women and family health. “But that’s not possible if you’re being advised not to leave your house, and that exacerbates the anxiety. This is exactly what telehealth is for — not only in times of crises, but as the world adapts to an increasingly remote workforce.”

As attempts are made to quell the spread of COVID-19, companies have mandated employees work remotely and have cancelled conferences, gatherings and other non-essential travel. People across the globe are practicing social distancing, limiting their contact with others and working remotely. With such massive disruptions to daily routines and new challenges to both work and personal lives, external stressors can bleed into day-to-day work tasks, compounding challenges for employees.

“We have a natural negativity bias — people are going to latch onto negative news and ruminate on uncertainty and fear and think about the negative over the positive,” says Courtney Bigony, director of people science at 15Five, a performance management software provider. “Negativity really narrows our awareness and our focus.”

Glass says it’s critical employers consider the holistic health of their employees, and be cognizant of how added stress will affect their work.

“People at work who are dealing with behavioral health issues self-report 20% or greater productivity loss and also develop other chronic health conditions,” he says. “Companies have to be thinking about both physical and mental health and recognize that this is a very stressful time for their employees.”

Beyond online resources, the desire for connection has started to redefine how people are socializing and checking in with coworkers and loved ones. O’Driscoll says taking the time to connect beyond work tasks can ease the feelings of isolation employees might be experiencing.

“Humans are social creatures so social isolation can be challenging. The communication you have with an employee should not just be about the task, but checking in with how they’re doing,” she says. “Try to promote virtual connectivity with team members and colleagues. That social connectedness is important for mental health.”

Bigony says it’s critical employers and managers are at the helm of encouraging their employees to tap into gratitude and positivity. At 15Five, Bigony’s team spends the first few minutes of their meetings focusing on their wins and sharing three things they’re grateful for.

“This will be a little bit harder for companies who haven’t flexed this muscle before and are just starting to do this during this time,” she says. “But hopefully people can see the importance of meditation, gratitude, recognizing wins and then continue to flex them as they emerge stronger than before.”

Opening up the lines of communication can also be a good reminder you’re not alone, says Glass. As the stigma around mental health and anxiety continues to lessen, especially during times of collective high stress, talking about the feelings can help.

Faced with the ongoing unknowns of the pandemic, offering comfort to those around you can be an opportunity to connect on a deeper level, while tending to the emotional well-being of yourself and others.

“If you’re feeling anxious, it’s a good time to reach out to family members or friends or your behavioral health coach and talk through it,” Glass says. “Have some outlets to discuss this in a way that’s not just social media.”

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