pile of money with stethoscope on top The best mental wellness initiatives are designed with employee needs in mind, but it’s also important to demonstrate quantifiable ROI in order to get senior leadership support for these programs. (Photo: Shutterstock)

With vaccine programs gradually rolling out around the world, the light at the end of this very long tunnel shines brighter with each passing day. But many people will continue to struggle even after the virus gets under control. Deloitte research into past crises reveals that “once the public health and economic crises have subsided, the human crisis can endure for months, if not years, to come.”

The emotional toll of the pandemic is a key theme we highlighted in our recent report, HR Trends 2021: People Strategies for an Uncertain Future. A survey conducted by the CDC revealed that 41% of adults were dealing with a mental health issue stemming from the health crisis in late June of 2020. Additionally, McKinsey found that layoff worries, burnout, and mental health have been among the top challenges cited by employees during the pandemic.

Related: Mental health benefits: A key component of DEI

If you haven’t already, now is the time to implement data-driven employee mental wellness programs. In addition to helping employees right now, making these programs an immediate priority means, in the long-term, employers can avoid increased health care costs, reduce absenteeism and achieve higher employee productivity.

Remote work + mental health = digital strategy

Wellness programs aren’t new, but the expanded focus on mental health—spurred on by the challenges of the pandemic—is the pressing matter of the day. There is an increasing list of apps covering everything from social concerns to financial security, and, according to a survey conducted by Workplace Intelligence, people are even turning to AI-powered assistants and chatbots for counseling.

Along with these digital tools, there are effective low-tech benefits, such as providing access to counseling services and childcare. All of these elements can be rolled into a comprehensive program, but organizations simply can’t afford to invest in tactics that don’t yield meaningful outcomes.

To achieve results, employee mental wellness programs need to be strategic, insights-driven and measurable. Here is an overview of how to use these three elements to build a robust mental health program:

1. Build the connection between mental health & productivity

The best mental wellness initiatives are designed with employee needs in mind, but it’s also important to demonstrate quantifiable ROI in order to get senior leadership support for these programs.

In your business case, make sure you start with a clear definition of the problem that you are trying to solve – don’t lead with the costs. Use examples that show where mental health challenges are showing up in the business – and connect people with the unseen problems that could be found using better technology and/or manager awareness. Only then can your most senior executives properly frame the costs of measuring and improving mental health. Also, remember that not everyone sees mental health care the same way. It can vary greatly depending on personal experience, culture, industry and region.

2. Use data to see who is struggling, getting by and thriving

When determining where needs are highest, don’t run with the first data point you get. Consider how a Mercer survey found a decrease in behavioral health claimants from March to May 2020 compared to the same timeframe in the previous year. This piece of transactional data in isolation doesn’t reveal the full magnitude of the pandemic’s toll on mental health.

Remember when you could walk around the office and see who was talking to whom, and the ‘mood’ of a group? Begin using your data to get that picture of sentiment so that you can understand population mental health as well as see where individual problems can exist. Go beyond your standard questions and start asking questions that give you a clearer picture of individual challenges. Ask about living situations, care requirements and physical space to help build an understanding of how you might need to manage people differently. Take the time in each survey to ask: do you personally need help? (And offer resources in-survey.)

Use data on the challenges that employees face to build empathy with people managers. Help them connect with employees beyond the zoom screen and make 1:1s about more than tasks. Use experience surveys to measure the effectiveness of 1:1s and create a minimum standard for the manager/employee connection as a way to prevent, or early detect, mental health issues.

Use network analysis data to look at shifts in the social interaction pattern for employees. Disconnecting from co-workers, customers or other stakeholders can be measured using email, instant message and calendar data. If you see changes or isolated people, reach out!

One survey platform or HRIS alone won’t show you the patterns of mental health issues –– leverage people analytics to see the full picture. The right platform will enable you to combine data from multiple disparate sources –– your HCM, health claim information and survey results –– together to produce rich insights. All of this data in aggregate helps answer questions like: Is turnover higher among employees with adult caregiving responsibilities? In this way, you can gain a clear picture of the situation at hand and zone in on where you need to make changes.

3. Use data to drive behaviors, measure goals

Setting goals and measuring progress are key components for ensuring your mental wellness efforts are working, but don’t rely on ‘consumption’ of services alone as a measure.

Look at goals around maintaining levels of turnover, absence and engagement during a challenging period of time. Pulse awareness of programs, measure site visits to information about resources and other proxies for the consumption of passive resources. Ask questions about how valuable people find resources. This will give you a more holistic picture of what’s working, and what is not.

Having the flexibility to make course corrections along the way is also an asset. Sometimes as a new initiative rolls out, you might need more information to refine and reconsider your goals and tactics. An analytics platform that comes with HR best practices encoded into its design will help you continually ask new questions.

The employer’s role in boosting resiliency

This is a sobering moment in human history, but Steven Taylor, the author of Psychology of Pandemics offers hope in his interview with the American Psychological Association: “As a species, we have survived countless pandemics—and while it can be stressful during the unfolding of a disaster, people do go on to adapt and recover.”

Employers have a key role to play in helping people retain a sense of normalcy and purpose when the world has been caught in a tailspin. It’s your people who matter most –– and by leveraging the right information to take care of them, you also take care of the business.

Paul Rubenstein is Chief People Officer at Visier.

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