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    If you are a Human Resources professional, a mid-level manager or a small business owner and have been in this role for the last year, I say welcome to our club. I mean, welcome to the world of being a mental health first responder! Or maybe it’s best to say you are a workplace mental health first responder. It’s probably not a role you signed up for. Maybe it’s not a role you trained for. Maybe it’s not a role you even imagined when you were in business school or human resources school. But it’s a big part of your job.

    Now, I know you may not have the mental health professional credentials and training, but I know you’ve been doing great work as a workplace mental health first responder without those accoutrements- at least since the coronavirus pandemic’s onset in early 2020. (Early 2020… That may sound like ages ago or it might seem like only yesterday depending on how the COVID related phenomena of time distortion has affected you. See my Blog: Time Distortion – Another Strange Side Effect of the COVID-19 Pandemic ) I know you have been providing emotional support to stressed out or burned out employees; you’ve been making employee referrals to innumerable resources; you’ve been helping employees who are in financial binds; you’ve been assisting those who were sick from COVID and possibly (and sadly) some employees who have died from COVID or had a loved one die from it.

    You’ve been doing all these things while also taking on the more mundane and tedious tasks of understanding new employee related laws and regulations that have been spun out since the pandemic’s onset.  Of course you have been doing all this work while superbly conducting your day job during what has probably been highly irregular operations at your organization.  And let’s not forget to call out that you have been giving all this support despite your own level of “pandemic fatigue”.

    Your Role as a Workplace Mental Health First Responder is Important

    Your role as workplace mental health first responder and the support you’ve provided has never been more important to your employees and never been more needed.  Why? Your employees have been and continue to be extraordinarily stressed.  Even in “normal” times, around 40% of employees say the workplace is very stressful. Nearly one in three call their work extremely stressful and a sizeable portion say work is the number one source of stress in their lives.  In the best of times, workplace stress always ranks close to money worries as a top source of stress for most adults.

    While you probably know that stress can create physical health problems, you may not know that stress can be deadly. 120,000 employees each year die from illnesses related to workplace stress. About a third of all doctor’s office visits are connected to a stress-related condition.  Many costly and deadly health conditions are stress related, as is America’s “growing” obesity epidemic, an epidemic made worse by the pandemic.

    The Issue of Social Isolation

    While workplace stress is a known source of health problems, one that is less well known is social isolation. Social isolation, a term once mostly used by mental professionals, gerontologists, and sociologists, is now a part of everyday lexicon.  You and your employees and every other North American have experienced a large, unexpected, and unwanted dose of it in the last year.  Most are experiencing it right now.  Experts agree that the consequences of a year or more of social isolation on people’s long-term wellbeing is not yet understood.  This is because humans are incredibly social beings and the lack of social contact with co-workers, family, friends, and other people challenges and sometimes overwhelms our normal coping skills and natural resilience.  Sadly, for the family and friends of over 561,000 (at this writing) who have died from COVID-19, social isolation created another burden of anguish by disturbing the normal grieving rituals and processes that help people cope with the loss of a parent, spouse, child, friend, or co-worker.

    New Challenges Facing Your Employees

    What you didn’t bargain for in your role was the enormous burden and the complex challenges the pandemic has brought to your employees.  In the best of times, a good number of your employees’ coping skills and resources were already being taxed by special personal challenges known largely only to them.  The pandemic has brought a whole new set of challenges that can affect their wellbeing and health, and in turn affect their engagement with their work. Some of those challenges include:

    • Suddenly becoming a 24/7 single parent. Remember, in pre-COVID times a single parent wasn’t also a home-schooling teacher
    • Being one of the 43.5 million American’s who are unpaid caregivers for a physically or cognitively disadvantaged adult or a child
    • Financial challenges from living paycheck to paycheck, possibly saddled with a 5 or 6 figure student debt, and not having a savings reserve to meet ordinary (pre-COVID) medical bills
    • Struggling to afford quality and safe childcare

    Even prior to COVID, some of your employees you know (or suspect) were among the 1 in 5 Americans that experience an emotional or behavioral health issue each year.  They were experiencing common behavioral health conditions like anxiety, depression, PTSD, or substance misuse. If your workforce was heavily female or heavily young people, then you might have known that they more likely to be experiencing these behavioral health conditions than other demographic groups.

    While you know from examining drug spending reports from your pharmacy benefit manager that two or three psychiatric medications are in the top ten drugs prescribed to your employees, what you may not know is that most of your employees- in the best of times- are actually not getting any treatment for their conditions.  Most of those who do get treatment are not getting adequate treatment. For many, that occasional brief visit to their family physician (who is not a psychiatric physician nor a therapist) is the extent of their treatment.

    Of course, as a workplace mental health first responder you know we are in a new phase of pandemic fatigue.  This new phase has all the old everyday pre-COVID stresses as well as those brought on by the pandemic, plus a new set of stresses.  Stresses around vaccinations, both fears about their safety as well as anxieties about where and how to get vaccinated.  Then there are concerns about working alongside co-workers who are not vaccinated and dealing with customers while a pandemic is still raging or winding down-we hope.

    Three Steps to Take

    The good news is there are steps you can take today to help you in your first responder role and to help your employees’ mental health. These are three very accessible steps. And for benefit of your C Suite staff who are cautious about investing in employees’ mental health and wellbeing, these steps entail minimal or no expense. Here are the three steps.

    1. Engage your Employee (or Student) Assistance Program provider and ask it to create and promote ongoing awareness of its services and accessibility. Ask it to create an easily accessible channel for assistance for your employees in need.  EAPs (Or SAPs for university and college populations.  Young people are at high risk for mental health conditions in the best of times.) offer relatively barrier-free means to professional assessments, referrals, short-term counseling and crisis intervention. They support both your employees’ wellbeing and your organization’s productivity and safety.  But EAPs and SAPs can be passive in terms of their visibility and outreach, diminishing their value.  Factors like your level of engagement and the financial arrangement with your vendor can be inadvertent disincentives for optimal utility. If you are not the point of contact for your EAP or SAP, make sure an HR, Benefits or Wellness team member is and make sure that person is tasked with staying engaged with your service provider.


    1. Engage your leadership and managers. Make sure this stakeholder group is trained in sensitivity to employee mental health issues.  Ensure that your management and leadership teams are group supportive of mental health awareness in the workplace and equate good mental health with good physical health.  May is National Mental Health Awareness Month so timing is good to raise these issues to your managers. A good resource to learn more about that awareness month’s activities is  Make sure your leaders and managers are aware of the support your EAP or SAP can provide them in terms of expert consultations around people issues, and assistance in making referrals. Your provider can help you do this.


    1. Survey your employees’ wellbeing. They have been through an extraordinary time of personal and societal turmoil. Now is a great time to “take the emotional pulse” of your employees by surveying their levels of stress and awareness of all the resources you have arranged to support their wellbeing and workplace engagement.  By taking this step you also are communicating something very important: that you and your organization care about their wellbeing.  Your EAP/SAP or wellness services vendor can help you arrange such a survey.

    Doing these three things- now- will communicate a powerful message to your stakeholders. It will also help lighten your load in a positive way as your organization’s workplace mental health first responder.

    About the Author

    Norman Winegar, LCSW, CEAP, NCAC II is the Chief Clinical Officer at Espyr For over 30 years, Norman has practiced in mental health, substance misuse, and EAP settings. He has also worked in leadership positions in both public and private sector behavioral health organizations. An author of four books, he is frequently called on for presentations and as a panelist to share his expertise and experience as a mental health professional.

    About Espyr

    For over 30 years Espyr, has provided innovative mental health solutions – solutions like our AI powered chatbot, TESS – to organizations operating under some of the most challenging conditions. Espyr’s portfolio of customized counseling, coaching and consulting solutions help people and organizations achieve their full potential by providing mental health support and driving positive behavioral change. For more information on how Espyr can help your organization, call Espyr at 888-570-3479 or click here.


    Adequacy of Treatment for Serious Mental Illness in the United States

    American Journal of Public Health


    National Alliance on Mental Health


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