During the pandemic, Mark Switaj has been mindful of how he talks about mental health with his employees. Switaj, the CEO of a medical transportation and technology company called Roundtrip, openly shared about times he struggled to sleep or “wasn’t in the right mindset” during companywide meetings. He knew that as a leader, destigmatizing discussions about mental health in the workplace started at the top.

Roundtrip, with offices in Philadelphia and Richmond, Va., provides staff with mental health resources through Fringe, a system where workers can spend points on lifestyle benefits such as babysitting or streaming subscriptions. After Switaj noticed no one took time off during the pandemic, he implemented half-day Fridays every other week. And the company is slowly bringing its roughly 45 employees back to offices, with plenty of feedback from teams.

“We all have prior life experiences where talking about mental health wasn’t exactly the thing to do, especially at a place of employment,” Switaj said. “I don’t want that. I want to make talking about mental health a cultural norm, not a taboo or exception.”

As Philadelphia employers begin bringing employees who had been able to work from home back into offices, mental health has been a key component of conversations about what a post-pandemic workplace should look like. Over the last 15 months, there has been a 5% increase in anxiety and depression among American adults, according to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Substance abuse is also on the rise — 2020 marked Philadelphia’s second-highest drug death toll on record, and experts said the increase in overdoses was likely worsened by COVID-19 lockdowns.

That has prompted some employers to offer more mental health resources. More than 16% of employers expanded their mental health benefits because of the pandemic, according to a survey of nearly 300 U.S. organizations by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP), a nonprofit research group. Of those employers, about 83% said they would permanently keep the added services.

Among other things, employers covered more mental health visits, increased Employee Assistance Program benefits, or offered access to relaxation/meditation apps like Calm, said Julie Stich, vice president of content at IFEBP. Local employers said workers used more online therapy sessions, too.

“Employers are really recognizing the long-term impact of the pandemic on employees’ mental well-being,” Stich said. “This isn’t something that everybody’s going to bounce back from and be completely fine in the next couple of months or the rest of the year.”

When employers meet the mental health needs of their employees, the result is lower medical and disability costs, fewer absences and increased productivity, said Margaret Daniele Fallin, the chair of the mental health department at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. Depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1 trillion per year in lost productivity, according to the World Health Organization. In the same analysis, researchers found that for every $1 put into scaled up treatment for common mental health disorders, employers receive $4 in improved health and productivity.

“The majority of adults are employed,” said Fallin. “The workplace is an obvious place to think about mental health. Workplaces have been more aware of the need to address mental health for employees, and there is some research that has shown that there is a good business case for mental wellness.”

In the early stages of the pandemic, workers experienced increased anxiety over loss of income, isolation, and uncertainty over work conditions, Fallin said. But now, “employers have to grapple with a different kind of anxiety,” she said.

“Some people are worried about infection and whether it will really be safe,” Fallin said. “Others are worried about child care, elder care, and family responsibilities, and how it can affect their own employability. And then there are folks who have gotten used to this particular lifestyle and don’t want things to go back to how they were.”

Changing the psychological contract

Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health set up a mental health committee during the early days of the pandemic to identify and develop resources for its roughly 35,000 employees and 8,300 students, said Anita Jensen, Jefferson’s senior vice president of Learning and Organizational Development.

The university and health system utilized its psychiatry expertise in many cases. For example, Jefferson’s chief adolescent psychiatrist and fellows recorded videos explaining the stages of childhood anxiety, as a resource for parents. If a nursing unit had a high number of COVID-19 deaths in a single shift, Jefferson psychiatrists would host a video conference to help hospital staff process that loss of life, Jensen said.

Jefferson has decided the new mental health resources should continue and is pivoting to make them not specifically focused on a psychological response to a pandemic, but to actively support holistic health, Jensen said.

Some employees may be anxious about returning to offices, she noted. For example, families who enjoyed more time together because of remote work and less travel may be reluctant to lose that.

“I think that the psychological contract between employers and employees has changed,” Jensen said. “We need to be curious about how it’s changed and try to understand it … it feels to me like it’s going to be different. And that will require adjustments on the part of both employers and employees.”

Anxiety over child care

National surveys show a disconnect between employers and employees around mental health needs. Last year, 65% of employers told management consultant McKinsey & Co. that employee mental health is supported well; only 51% of employees agreed.

At Comcast, the number of workers using Employee Assistance Programs has increased more than 5% since 2019, and the company has encouraged staff to take advantage of the resources, said Bill Strahan, the head of human resources at Comcast’s cable division.

In addition to offering more mental health help, the cable giant aims to fix underlying issues that cause stress or anxiety. Through its EAP, Comcast has identified lack of child care as a driver of mental health issues. The company offered resources such as emergency child care benefits or tools to improve employees’ sleep health.

“As we were able to take anxiety over child care down, we think that had that carryover effect to the emotional well-being and health of our teammates,” Strahan said.

The soonest Comcast will return workers to offices is after Labor Day, according to a memo sent to staff on May 26. When that process begins, the company will bring staff back in phases and with flexibility over a period of months. Comcast has about 9,000 workers at its Center City headquarters.

Addressing the potential mental health issues associated with returning to offices is one reason why Comcast is taking its time, Strahan said. The company is listening to staff “to figure out how we can adapt the experience along the way to try to knock down as many impediments to people wanting to come back,” he said.

Communicating empathy

Some employers said staff can request a leave of absence if their mental health issues prevent them from working. For example, The Inquirer’s nonunion employees can request an unpaid 30-day leave of absence, if they’ve used all their paid time off, under a policy started in August, said Lauren Kauffman, The Inquirer’s senior vice president of People & Culture. Union workers can also seek a leave of absence as part of their collective bargaining agreement with the company.

But it’s crucial for employers to let employees know that they are being sensitive and empathetic about mental health needs, said Jenny Burke, the senior director of impairment practice at the National Safety Council, a national nonprofit advocating for workplace safety. Otherwise, people may hesitate to use the resources that are available, even if they know about them.

“Employers need to overcommunicate resources they have at play,” Burke said. “They probably need to mention what the resources are every day, so employees know they are coming back to safe environments.”

Burke encouraged companies to use the organization’s mental health employer cost calculator to see how mental health can affect business.

“When you have a happier, more productive workforce, and your employees feel safe, supported and engaged with their work, that’s when you’re going to prosper as an organization,” she said.

The Future of Work is produced with support from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.