Now More than Ever, Employers Must Provide Mental Health Support for Employees

Employers and employees are thinking more and more about returning to work, even though many return-to-work plans are written in pencil and continue to change.

Employees will surely be armed with masks, hand sanitizer and other resources when – if – they do return to an office.

But will they also have peace of mind?

A recent report by consulting firm McKinsey found that workers are most concerned about returning to work sites due to health and safety risks related to Covid-19. One-third of respondents said their return to work has had a negative impact on their mental health. Almost half of those who have not yet returned anticipate negative mental health impacts.

It’s never been more important or more apparent that employers must acknowledge the anxiety of workers and take steps to help employees cope with the enormous stress and strain caused with returning to work while the pandemic continues to pose a risk.

Learning to identify, understand and respond to signs and symptoms of mental health and substance use challenges encountered in the workplace can provide people with the skills to overcome the hurdles that threaten our wellbeing.

Those skills include navigating conversations about mental health or substance use concerns, tackling mental health stigma in the workplace and building resilience and strategies to alleviate burnout.

More and more employers throughout all sectors of the economy offer training in Mental Health First Aid because it gives employees who want to or need to return to the workplace the confidence that they can do so safely.

Many of those who work in health care never had the opportunity to work remotely, and the workplace challenges they have faced throughout the pandemic are significantly greater than the challenges others have experienced.

They provided patients with treatment and care – for their physical health and their mental health – despite the risks to their own health and wellbeing. It’s no wonder that burnout and turnover in health care are on a frightening trajectory.

In April, a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey found almost 60% of all health care workers nationally have had their mental health significantly impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, a recent report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 53% of public health workers have experienced symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD and suicidal ideation during the pandemic.

It is vital that we find ways to support the wellbeing of workers throughout the health care continuum.

“…strengthening work systems to encourage behavior changes that promote mental health, such as building awareness of symptoms of mental health conditions and developing sustainable coping strategies, might improve mental health conditions,” according to the CDC.

The challenges are equally daunting among workers who provide mental health and substance use treatment across all settings. As the nation faces an increase in mental health challenges and an overdose crisis, mental health and substance use professionals are working frantically. A workforce shortage means many professionals are under additional strain, as demand for services leads to long hours.

Investing in resources to protect the wellbeing of mental health and substance use professionals – and  all other health care and public health workers – will improve efforts to recruit and retain employees in a newly competitive labor market.

In addition to our work in supporting National Council members who provide mental health and substance use treatment, our CDC-funded Behavioral Health Training Institute (BHTI) also has supported hundreds of state, tribal, local and territorial health and mental health officials in more than 45 states. The training focuses on creating strong behavioral health competencies in public health officials, supporting workforce development and training and building interconnection between public health and mental health systems.

Beginning in 2020, the BHTI placed even greater emphasis on supporting public health and mental health leaders as they addressed complex trauma in their communities, resiliency planning and maintaining self-care.

We will continue to build on the progress we’ve made so far and provide mental health and substance use professionals with the resources to help them do their jobs safely and cope with the overwhelming pressure created by the pandemic and a wave of mental health and substance use challenges.

Employers have done a better job of focusing on the wellbeing of their employees, but more work remains to be done. So as people return to work, employers should consider providing resources that promote wellbeing.

It’s no longer enough for employers to hand out masks and hand sanitizer to their employees. Providing meaningful resources also requires developing a culture of support through programs to boost mental health.


Charles Ingoglia, MSW
(he/him/his) President and CEO
National Council for Mental Wellbeing
See bio