This blog was published on April 3, 2020 International’s Foundation of Employee Benefits Plans Blog, written by Robbie Hartman, CEBS. Photo source:

In rapid time, the coronavirus has upended the benefit industry’s way of work. Most offices stand empty or operate with a skeleton crew, as employees and plan participants keep their distance and work from afar. Amid the crucial and necessary changes to keep office operations humming at a physical distance, it is increasingly important for organizations to also address their employees’ mental health needs.

As the stressors pile up—including potential job loss, bill payments, reduced retirement savings and social isolation, to name just a few—employers are searching for ways to communicate with employees about their mental health.

Finding Online Resources

Starling Minds, a digital mental health platform, released data showing that 58% of users in its free mental health program said they are extremely stressed and anxious because of job uncertainty, social isolation and health concerns stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. Its online program—which was launched in response to the current crisis—aims to help users create self-awareness around the causes of their stress, set boundaries on the amount of information they consume on COVID-19, create realistic goals during this unprecedented time, learn coping strategies to better handle anxiety and learn from each other through confidential peer exchanges.

Public health officials also have resources available. In Ontario this spring, people can begin to take advantage of the new public initiative called Mindability. This initiative was already in the works prior to the coronavirus, but the timing is helpful for employees and their families looking for access to mental health and addiction supports during this challenging time. In addition to addiction supports, the publicly funded program aims to provide therapy for anxiety and depression to residents over the age of ten. Services include internet-based modules, personal workbooks and telephone coaching.

This also is a good time for organizations to promote the use of mental health resources available through their telehealth services and/or employee assistance programs (EAPs). As Marc Milot, Ph.D., pointed out in the January/February issue of Plans & Trusts, studies indicate that EAPs can help improve psychological health and reduce associated plan costs. Telehealth options can allow participants to use video, phone or text messaging to consult with registered nurse practitioners and doctors.

Creating a Sense of Community

In addition to connecting employees and plan participants to medical professionals, it also is vital to help them find a sense of community with one another—a virtual water cooler, if you will. Many organizations have made use of video meeting options like Zoom, and a number of messaging apps also allow co-workers to ask each other questions, share helpful resources, and swap photos for work and nonwork purposes.

In addition to its coronavirus resource page for members, the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans has embraced technology to help its own employees create a virtual workplace and a sense of community.

Since the International Foundation was already using Microsoft Teams as a productivity tool for collaboration and communication, the Foundation’s Healthy Workplace Council decided to leverage the platform to encourage employees to keep their personal connections intact. The council introduced several virtual chat options on Teams, including practical information on mindfulness and home-schooling resources as well as lighter fare like recipe recommendations and bingeworthy TV shows. Another space is dedicated to photos, where employees have been showing off their home offices and keeping in touch with other fun visuals. There also is a question of the day that lets employees ponder a wide range of topics—for example: If you could only have one snack for the rest of your life, what would it be?

This last question brings up another potentially important component in mental health: humor. According to a recent Time magazine article, laughter can help people cope in times of crisis. Humor brings its own challenges too, and companies should be aware of tone, the subjective nature of humor and their own culture to inform their decisions.

Mental Health During the Coronavirus Pandemic

However employers and plan sponsors choose to tackle this issue—online resources and therapy, telehealth services, virtual spaces for employee connectedness, laughter or a combination of each—the data shows there is a serious need to communicate to employees about the state of their mental health during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond.

If you have found successful avenues for addressing the mental health needs of your employees or plan participants during this time, please share them in the comments below.