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Tips for supporting your employees’ mental health with Dr. James Schuster

Investing in your employees’ mental health by offering access to behavioral health tools, programs, and services in your benefits package is a crucial component of maintaining the overall well-being of your business. High levels of stress or mental health concerns can negatively affect all aspects of a person’s life, including engagement in the workplace and job performance. According to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, roughly 25 percent of Americans are struggling with symptoms of depression—a drastic increase from the numbers shown in studies prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 [1].

Dr. James Schuster, Chief Medical Officer and Senior Vice President of Medical and Behavioral Services at UPMC Insurance Services Division, recently spoke about the looming mental health crisis stemming from the pandemic in an interview with the Pittsburgh Business Times. Now, he is sharing his knowledge and tips on supporting employees’ mental health during these challenging times. With winter around the corner, his advice for employers who want to prioritize their workforce’s mental and emotional well-being is especially timely.

Discussion with Dr. James Schuster, UPMC Insurance Services Division

How does mental health relate to overall health and wellness?
Our mental and physical health are interconnected—more than most people expect. Medical evidence shows that if someone is managing a chronic condition, they often experience higher levels of stress and may be at risk for other, more serious, mental health conditions.

Chronic stress—the type that some might be experiencing during this pandemic—can negatively affect diet, raise blood pressure, disrupt sleep, and even weaken the immune system, making a person more susceptible to illness. Those dealing with mental health issues are at greater risk for developing a substance use disorder, which can also have long-term health consequences.
How can poor mental health affect the workplace and employees?
If an employee is dealing with stress, anxiety, or a mental health disorder, it can take a great toll on them personally. It can compromise that person’s ability to fully focus on their work because they are overwhelmed by personal concerns such as their health, their family’s health, or a financial situation. With many employees putting in extra hours, or adjusting to new, remote working environments, many are experiencing burnout. These factors all lead to increased levels of stress, anxiety, and absenteeism, as well as a reduction in job performance.
How can employers support their employees’ mental health?
Employers can play a vital role in reducing stigma around mental health disorders and promoting a holistic approach to health. First, they can look at the benefits and HR tools their employees have access to: Does the coverage you offer include mental health services and support? Does it include an employee assistance program (EAP) that can help connect employees to resources that they need to solve the challenges causing the stress?

Beyond coverage, one of the best things employers can do is communicate with their employees about these issues—whether they are working in-person or remotely. If employees are working remotely, employers can check in on their well-being by asking questions like “What is your daily routine for work?”, “Are you allowing time for breaks?”, and “How can I support you?”. If they notice any signs of emotional distress, be prepared to offer support and guidance.

Employers can offer or expand trainings and seminars to include stress management methods. HR personnel and managers might consider including discussions about stress into annual reviews, employee interviews, and employee engagement surveys. They should also focus on creating an open, comfortable environment where employees feel comfortable sharing any issues or concerns they may be experiencing with managers or HR personnel.

Finally, employers need to ensure that their remote employees feel at ease when transitioning back to the workplace. Employers should clearly communicate return-to-work plans and expectations, and be open to any employee feedback or questions.

The winter months and holiday season often are a challenging time. This year there are the additional stressors of a continuing global pandemic and social distancing. Any advice you can offer?
The pandemic certainly has changed many things, but some strategies remain the same. While we may be required to practice social distancing, we can stay emotionally connected with our friends and family through technology. Physical activity, getting enough sleep, practicing self-care, and avoiding the misuse of alcohol or drugs are also things we should be practicing to stay well. If these strategies aren’t enough, it might be worth seeking out additional support.
There are many ways to access mental health resources. How can employers determine what type of services to offer?
With recent advances in technology, it’s even easier for your employees to access mental health care no matter where they are located. There are self-paced mobile apps that can walk users through ways to incorporate stress-relieving practices into their daily life. For example, an employee can practice deep breathing and mindfulness, which can help reduce stress and anxiety during a five-minute break at work. Often these tools can be accessed through an employee assistance program, like LifeSolutions®. Our RxWell app also offers evidence-based, cognitive behavioral therapy techniques that can help your employees manage their stress or anxiety.

UPMC Health Plan offers access to health management programs with certified health coaches that can provide one-on-one support for managing stress or anxiety. If more substantial support is needed, employees can talk to a licensed counselor. Many counselors are now offering virtual video counseling, which allows individuals to find support without having to leave their home.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of self-harm, call 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255)—the 24-hour, toll-free, confidential National Suicide Prevention Lifeline—or visit

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[1] Ettman CK, Abdalla SM, Cohen GH, Sampson L, Vivier PM, Galea S. Prevalence of depression symptoms in U.S. adults before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(9):e2019686. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.19686