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Supporting Mental Health with your Benefits Strategy

Julie Wittes Schlack on March 26, 2021 10:05 AM

Mental health challenges have been more openly discussed during the pandemic, perhaps because they’ve been so exacerbated, helping to break long-standing taboos associated with mental health needs in the workplace.

A survey of 500 Human Resource leaders and C-suite decision-makers, recently conducted by, reveals that many companies are abandoning the “nice to have” benefits critical to a centralized workforce (such as free lunches and commuter benefits) in favor of benefits that have greater impact on the way we work today and will continue to work tomorrow.

In the most recent McKinsey/Lean In report, workers were asked to select their three biggest challenges during the pandemic from a list of twelve options. While anxiety over layoffs or furloughs was most frequently selected, “Burnout” and “Mental health” came in second and third, and “Physical and mental health of loved ones” was the fifth most frequently selected option, just behind “Childcare and/or homeschooling responsibilities.”

These mental health challenges are a product of many factors, including the need for working parents and/or elder caregivers to be perpetually “on.” And the consequence of those factors is that basic self-care has increasingly fallen by the wayside. Research conducted by Moms’ Hierarchy of Needs found that even as respondents felt that they were performing well as parents and better as workers over the course of pandemic, a full 85% felt that they were performing terribly or not as well as usual as caregivers to themselves. This lack of self-care was manifested in every measure of it that Moms’ Hierarchy of Needs employed – attention to physical wellness, adult relationships with partners and friends, and pursuit of hobbies and interests.

The consequences of stress, so intensified by the pandemic, are manifested in physical as well as mental health. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation health tracking study, more than two-thirds of mothers (69%) say they’ve experienced at least one adverse health effect during the pandemic, as have half of fathers (51%).

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Care benefits ease some of these stresses, enabling workers to devote at least some time to essential self-care. Increased mental health services (for kids as well as parents) are an essential complement to this effort. And human resource leaders recognize this. That’s why, while 61% of our respondents already offer some form of mental health benefits, 41% plan to expand them in the coming year.

Indeed, 59% cited improved mental health as one of the primary outcomes of care giving benefits (and that percentage increased to 68% in companies employing more than 2,000 workers).

It’s not just the caregivers who need mental health support. So do their children. More than two-thirds of parents who sought mental health help for their children since the start of the pandemic said they had witnessed a decline in their child’s emotional well-being (72%), behavior (68%), and physical health due to decreased activities/exercise (68%). And those needs won’t disappear when the pandemic ends; the sequelae will be lasting and remain a source of stress and distraction for working parents unless adequately addressed.

But adding and expanding benefits won’t be enough if employees don’t know about or are uncomfortable taking advantage of them. McKinsey/Lean In found that “almost all companies offer mental health counseling, but only about half of employees know this benefit is available. The same trend holds for other valuable programs such as parenting resources, health checks, and bereavement counseling.”

This illustrates that frequent, transparent employee communications are essential. HR’s job doesn’t stop at providing helpful benefits. It’s incumbent on them to create a communicative and compassionate culture in which to learn about and exercise them.

Read the full report here

Julie Wittes Schlack

Julie Wittes Schlack is a research consultant, founder, and former SVP of Product Innovation at C Space Corporation. She is the author of This-All-At-Onceness (Pact Press, 2019).