Articles | March 25, 2020

Helping Individuals Cope in Response to COVID-19

Much has changed in a short time. Many people have shifted to working remotely, while others may be continuing to work under new processes or circumstances designed to address the current health emergency. Others have abruptly lost their connection to the workforce, and do not know when they will return to employment.

Individuals may be experiencing increased anxiety because of concerns regarding risks to their own health or to the health of loved ones, uncertainty about employment and financial stability, stress related to an interruption of daily routines or the uncertainty of what to expect in the near future.

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While plan sponsors navigate these trying times, it is more important than ever to provide exemplary leadership, as discussed in a recent article by Segal Benz. A key component of doing that is helping guide individuals on how to maintain their mental health and well-being through the days and weeks to come.

Plan sponsors are taking many steps to address COVID-19, including working to improve access and costs related to COVID-19 benefits, as well as access to mental health and substance use disorder benefits during this time. Maintaining mental health and well-being is an immediate and critical concern.

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Promoting mental well-being

Plan sponsors may wish to develop supportive communications to promote mental health during the COVID-19 emergency. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have issued guidance related to maintaining mental health and well-being during the COVID-19 public health emergency. The information on this page is based on those resources.

Key components to maintaining mental health include:

  • Interpersonal connectionsAll of us need to stay connected, Using email, video conferencing and phone calls to stay in daily communication is encouraged. Engaging in non-contact activities that show community support, such as dropping a needed grocery item at a neighbor’s door, can have positive impact. Habits that can be anxiety-inducing should be limited. For example, while it is recommended that individuals stay informed, they should be judicious about their daily intake of news related to the current health emergency. As the CDC notes, “Hearing difficult news repeatedly can be upsetting.”
  • Healthy behavior — Consider messaging that promotes health and discourages unhelpful coping strategies such as tobacco, alcohol and drug use. Encourage those struggling with tobacco, alcohol or drug use, to contact their healthcare provider and direct them to take advantage of benefits and resources for mental health or substance use disorders that may be available through health coverage.
  • Physical activity — It’s important for individuals to remain active. Individuals should be encouraged to build breaks into each day for exercise and fresh air. As recommended by WHO, individuals should “try as much as possible to keep personal daily routines or create new routines.”
  • Rest and respite — Adequate sleep is important to mental well-being. Individuals can be reminded of the recommended amounts.* The CDC advises consistency in sleep can also help mental well-being. Individuals should also be encouraged to take respite time and engage in activities they enjoy, enabling them to recharge.

These components of mental well-being support the maintenance of physical health, which is equally important in protecting individuals who may face COVID-19 exposure.

If your organization offers an employee assistance program (EAP), this is the perfect time to remind your participants about the benefit and how the EAP may be able to help them cope right now.

Other ideas to make coping easier

In addition to providing your population with tips for maintaining well-being, as appropriate for the specific circumstances, here are some other things you can do to help maintain employee morale and make coping easier:

  • Demonstrate sensitivity through terminology — Refer to individuals who may have or have COVID-19 as people who are being tested, treated or who are recovering from COVID-19. Avoid referring to them as COVID-19, coronavirus or pandemic cases or victims.
  • Create a culture of empathy that acknowledges the additional stress associated with caregiving responsibilities — In addition to their own anxiety, individuals are likely providing support to children and elderly family members who may be experiencing health problems or anxiety. These links from the WHO and CDC provide information (including warning signs of anxiety) for caregivers. If you have available resources to provide support for caregivers, be sure to draw attention to them.
  • Promote mindfulness resources — Meditation is a proven technique for reducing stress. If your organization doesn’t currently have a program to encourage that practice, one can be created relatively quickly.
  • Establish additional communication links — For example, pairing individuals for a daily check-in call that normally would not have occurred boosts human interaction.
  • Provide updated resources — This may include information about federal, state or local mental health and psychosocial support services, information about financial support and community services, or tips and resources for dealing with children and the elderly during this time.
  • Provide high-quality communications — Cover ongoing changes and information about how you are responding to the impacts of the health emergency. Ensure information is clearly written, accurate and timely.
  • Consider any benefit changes, including new or additional benefits or payment terms that may apply during this time —  Telehealth benefits may be meaningful to offer now. Laws are also rapidly changing and may have an impact on employee benefits. Provide benefit updates to employees as soon as possible.
  • When possible and appropriate, consider necessary schedule adjustments — Options might include flexible work hours, variations in days worked and fluctuation between high- and low-stress assignments.

*For most adults this is seven to nine hours. For children ages six to 12, the recommendation is nine to 12 hours per day, and for children 13 to 18, it is eight to 10 hours per day.

On all issues involving the interpretation or application of laws and regulations, plan sponsors should rely on their legal counsel for legal advice.

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This page is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal, tax or investment advice. You are encouraged to discuss the issues raised here with your legal, tax and other advisors before determining how the issues apply to your specific situations.

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