It’s Okay Not to Be Okay: Helping Employees on Their Mental Health Journey

In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, we discuss the prevalence of anxiety and mental health issues, and the resources employers have at their disposal—including our Mental Health Wellness Toolkit—to help employees deal with ongoing stressors.

This blog post can also be found on our Coronavirus Resource Center.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month

For over 70 years, the National Alliance on Mental Illness ( has promoted May as National Mental Health Awareness Month. NAMI lets everyone know that no one needs to be alone on their mental health journey, acknowledging that “it’s okay not to be okay.”

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While 2020 is behind us, the aftershocks linger. Employees are still coping with family, financial, and health crises that affect their mental health and family. Mental health issues still carry a stigma in the workplace, making it more difficult for employees to reach out when they are in need. Shame and silence can be as bad as the symptoms themselves, especially during a time when employees may feel isolated or stressed.

The good news is that employers have resources at their disposal to help their employees effectively deal with ongoing stressors, but it all starts with raising awareness and sharing solutions.

Download Woodruff Sawyer’s Mental Health Wellness Toolkit for employers. This toolkit serves as an introduction to mental health wellness and offers a variety of ways that employers can help promote a stigma-free environment and support employees’ mental health.

Anxiety Disorders Are Common

An estimated one in five US adults suffered from an anxiety disorder in the past year, ranging from mild to severe symptoms. Anxiety disorders include heightened stress, generalized anxiety, social anxiety, panic disorders, and phobias, affecting nearly 40 million Americans. While some anxieties may be genetic, other conditions result from external, uncontrollable environmental factors. Over the past year, the pandemic changed employees’ work, social, and family structures, resulting in increased stress and anxiety levels. People who were separated from their loved ones and those who contracted COVID-19 also reported increased anxiety levels.

Remote working has contributed to increased stress and anxiety, often through isolation and a blurring between work and home responsibilities. Before the pandemic, the workplace offered social interaction and a clear separation between personal and professional lives. While some employees thrive as remote workers, others continue to find it challenging to work outside of a traditional work environment. Women are particularly affected by the pandemic, with millions leaving the workforce to care for homebound children, increasing anxiety by adding to existing financial and family stressors.

The amount of time on the job also contributes to work-related stress. According to one survey, over 90% of employees did not use their PTO during 2020, skipped break times, and worked one hour longer each day. Employers can review PTO balances and consider providing time off for vaccinations and their after-effects to reduce employee physical and mental stress (we cover this in our on-demand webinar on COVID-19 vaccine rollout strategies for the workplace).

There is no easy answer to reducing anxiety because employees’ lives are now more complicated, heightening anxiety and mental health concerns. Mental health diagnoses and treatment have become increasingly complex because anxiety disorders are frequently coupled with more severe depression or substance abuse issues. Professional assistance, medication, and other therapies are often required for people to manage their daily lives, making mental health awareness a year-round priority.

Helping Children and Teens Cope with Mental Health Issues

The teen years are traditionally plagued with uncertainty, causing occasional nervous and anxious behavior. However, ongoing anxiety can continue beyond short-lived incidents and get worse over time. Occasional worry can turn into excessive worry, escalating to Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) with symptoms that worsen over time.

In addition to anxiety, teen depression is also on the rise during the pandemic. The Mental Health Association survey indicated that 13% of teens aged 12-17 reported at least one Major Depressive Episode (MDE) and another 9.2% reported a Severe Depressive Episode (SDE) during 2020. The study reported an increase of over 220,000 episodes of MDEs and SDEs in 2020, a substantial rise primarily due to the isolation from the pandemic. The bigger issue is that if left untreated, childhood depression can linger into adulthood.

Teens are also susceptible to eating disorders like bulimia, binge eating, or anorexia nervosa, which has the highest death rate of any mental illness. Eating disorders can result in severe metabolic issues, dehydration, tissue damage, bone loss, and a host of other long-term complications. Teen eating disorders are frequently connected to other mental health issues like substance abuse or depression, resulting in challenging mental, emotional, and physical conditions.

Strategies to Help Children Deal with Stress

Catching symptoms early is essential. Involving a mental health professional can stem the tide of depression or more complicated mental health challenges by offering new tools and family support. Coping with rising child and teen stress starts with simple strategies:

  1. Encourage children to discuss their feelings. The pandemic created new realities for parents, children, and family structures. Providing a safe space for children to discuss their feelings will help reduce the stress from the uncertainties brought on by the pandemic.
  2. Model and engage in positive activities. Now that society is opening up again, families can engage in more activities using safety protocols. Visiting loved ones or an occasional night out can bring welcome relief while following local social distancing and masking guidelines.
  3. Get moving. Exercise is a proven way to improve mental and physical health. Children may benefit from local team sports (where allowed) or family walks. Encourage children and teens to get outside and engage in physical activities that they enjoy.

Mental Health Awareness Solutions for Employers

Employers can support employees on their mental health journey, helping them to understand that “it’s okay not to be okay.” Tools and support are essential once a mental health issue arises, and employers can be thoughtful about creating a positive and supportive workplace.

The pandemic changed corporate culture, creating uncertainty for employers and employees alike. Employers are now evaluating return-to-work programs that provide a safe atmosphere for employees to work and offer a productive and innovative environment. Employers are in a unique position to help employees realize their full potential, work productively, cope with everyday stressors, and contribute to their family and community as we move into the post-pandemic era.

Join Woodruff Sawyer at our May 25th webinar, “Navigating Mental Wellness During Pandemic Burnout,” where we’ll cover topics like: how to help employees who are struggling emotionally; and coaching your leaders to have meaningful and healthy conversations with employees.

At the top of the list is creating an emotionally safe environment that empowers employees and promotes trust. Employees want a workplace that encourages positive behavior, communicates mental health benefits, and supports work-life balance. Everything from anti-bullying policies to a safe area for on-location employees to use during stressful times are ways to create a trusting, lower stress environment.

Employer Toolkit for Mental Health Awareness & Wellness

Woodruff Sawyer created a Mental Health Wellness Toolkit to help employers manage the growing mental health crisis. The toolkit provides an overview of mental health in the workplace and comes with advice, resources, and easy-to-implement solutions. Supporting employees means providing the support they need to admit that “it’s okay not to be okay” and be brave enough to ask for assistance.

New Methods of Support: Instill Optimistic Mindsets, Review Job Roles

Employers who instill an optimistic attitude can enjoy unexpected benefits. Arrive at Happy is an organization that starts with a corporate assessment of leadership and employee attitudes, then implements programs that connect optimistic mindsets with business performance. The Science of Happiness – A Personal Happiness Workshop helps employers understand the power of a positive perspective that transforms employee performance and supports business goals.

The workplace and employee roles are evolving. As companies transition from a remote workforce to a remote and on-site hybrid design, they must consider how each job is performed. Job sharing, multiple shifts, and socially distanced seating plans are all part of the new workplace. To reduce employee anxiety, employers can evaluate existing job roles to minimize the potential for employee overwork, fatigue, and mental stress.

Leveraging Health & Wellness Programs

Employers are not alone in their efforts to address mental health challenges. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) offer support for employees in need. Educational tools, including ways to reduce stress, can be shared throughout the year. Exercise and mindfulness programs also provide the support that employees and their families need. Telehealth counseling services are also available, using apps to connect employees with qualified mental health professionals, wherever they may live.

The pandemic brought mental health issues to light so employers and employees can address this longstanding challenge. Mental health awareness is now an essential part of the new workplace culture. We’ve covered some of the tools available to help employers reach employees and their families and address the growing mental health crisis. A good benefits consultant can help you evaluate your existing benefits portfolio or design new programs that fit the needs of your workforce.




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