Enhancing Employees’ Mental Health: What Workplaces Can Do

Article Written By Irma Campos, PH.D.

Photo credit: christina-wocintechchat on unsplash

In addition to the financial and physical health implications, psychological research has determined that COVID-19 has contributed to negative mental health symptomatology. A recent national survey in late June 2020 revealed that an astounding 40% of U.S. adults reported negative mental health symptoms (e.g., depression, anxiety, suicidality, substance abuse), likely in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic (Czeisler et al., 2020). Of those 40% of adults, 31% reported anxiety or depressive symptoms; 13% reported beginning or increasing substance use; 26% reported trauma or stressor-related disorder symptoms; and 11% reported seriously considering suicide. It is hypothesized that COVID-19 has had an indirect and direct effect on mental health. As employees have returned to work, workplaces are suitable environments to implement mental health interventions that can reach an array of individuals who may otherwise not have access to high quality care. To help understand how mental health concerns develop, the diathesis-steps model will be briefly discussed. In addition, action steps that leaders and organizations can take to address mental health symptoms will also be reviewed.

As background to understanding how mental health concerns develop, the diathesis-stress model is helpful to consider (link from the American Psychological Association). This model proposes that mental disorders emerge as a result of genetic and biological vulnerabilities that interact with contextual stressors (e.g., traumatic events, financial insecurity, racial/gender/sexual orientation discrimination). Mental disorders can manifest at different times for different individuals after a particular threshold is met. Other research-based models propose that buffers can mitigate the interactive effect of biological and genetic vulnerabilities and contextual stressors. Such buffers can include addressing the situation (e.g., changing the situational triggers or environmental stressors through sociocultural change), psyche (e.g., addressing inner thoughts, emotions, and behaviors through evidence-based therapy), and biological/genetic contributors (e.g., altering manifestations of biological/genetic factors through psychotropic medication, transcranial magnetic stimulation). In industrialized nations, such as the United States, work and its associated outcomes (e.g, pay, social support) can be significant contributors to or buffers of negative mental health symptoms. So, workplace interventions, when appropriate, can offer exemplary ways to address negative mental health symptoms and improve employee-related outcomes, such as employee engagement and retention.

Examples of workplace interventions to address COVID-19 and related stressors may include: 1) Creating Social Support Groups that Promote Positive Psychological Functioning and Processing COVID-19’s Impact, 2) Implementing Leadership and Team Development Programs, 3) Offering Online Workshops for Developing Research-based Coping Skills for Specific Areas of Concern.

1. Creating Social Support Groups that Promote Positive Psychological Functioning and Processing of COVID-19 Impact

As discussed in a previous post, addressing positive psychological functioning is just as imperative as addressing impairments in functioning. This remains true during the COVID-19 pandemic. Workplaces are called to offer structured social support groups (whether online or in-person while implementing CDC recommendations). A doctoral psychologist, for example, could facilitate a monthly social support group with a focused topic during every group. Focused topics may include: how to identify and manage emotions that have arisen during the pandemic; how to communicate one’s needs effectively with supervisors and peers during the pandemic; and how to increase resilience in the face of COVID-related challenges.

2. Implementing Leadership and Team Development Programs

Related to the previous action item, although numerous COVID-19 challenges and barriers may exist for organizations, it is imperative for employees to feel their organizations still invest in their development. This will send an explicit message of employee dedication and appreciation. As research has supported, employee engagement is facilitated, in part, by organizations supporting development efforts. Now more than ever specific forms of research-based leadership (e.g., Transformational, Servant, Social Justice) are called upon to help lead organizations and employees through unchartered transitions and barriers. Leadership and team development programs should be evidence-based and personalized to organizations’ current needs and gaps, particularly as employees transition to re-entering physical workplaces.

3. Offering Online Workshops for Developing Research-based Coping Skills for Specific (Not General) Areas of Concern

Online, self-guided workshops can offer the opportunity for employees to acquire specific coping skills independently. It is recommended that such workshops include targeted areas of concern (e.g., obsessive thoughts, parenting issues, etc.) and related coping skills for given target areas. For example, for individuals who may be experiencing obsessive thoughts regarding COVID-19, it would important for coping skills to include active (not avoidant) ways of managing symptoms. Active ways would include bringing ‘radical acceptance’ to the physical sensations in the body associated with the anxiety caused by obsessive thoughts. In order to be effective, these coping skills for obsessive thinking must not inadvertently reinforce symptoms. Thus, targeted coping skills for specific areas of concern will be most helpful.

Workplaces are well positioned to use COVID-19 challenges as an opportunity to support the mental health of employees and leaders. Not only will employees and leaders benefit from this, but so will organizations and communities more broadly.


Czeisler MÉ , Lane RI, Petrosky E, et al. Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:1049–1057. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6932a1


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