In addition to the physical health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis and its associated fallout has triggered what could be called a “second pandemic” — elevated stress and higher levels of anxiety and depression. CDC research found that more than 40% of adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of anxiety and depression, a significant increase that the researchers correlate with pandemic trends. More than one-half of younger adults surveyed reported experiencing these symptoms.

Many employers are aware of the increase in employee mental health and stress issues, but most haven’t had the bandwidth to address it because of the economic and labor market turmoil they’ve been dealing with over the past few years. Many businesses are struggling to adjust, especially to acute recruiting and retention challenges. Business leaders are generally aware that mental health and wellness needs are increasing but few are equipped to address the issue.

It’s important to realize that the labor shortage and employee mental health and wellness aren’t necessarily separate issues. Employers who offer generous mental health and wellness benefits are making an upfront investment, but it pays off in the long run via better productivity and higher employee loyalty, which can not only help employers alleviate their recruiting and retention problems, but also increase employees’ motivation to learn and develop new skills. For this reason, learning leaders would be smart to double down on delivering wellness and well-being awareness and training initiatives across the enterprise.

The Importance of Mental Health Benefits and Programs

According to the CDC, front-line employees have especially been hit hard by rising mental health issues, and those are the positions employers are having the hardest time filling in a tight labor market. Employees who are experiencing severe stress, anxiety or depression often also have related physical health issues, which can impact their ability to work.

If employees are already stressed to their breaking point, it can not only affect their productivity, but it can also decrease employee motivation to continuously learn and grow. And when employees aren’t motivated to learn new skills and fill skills gaps, this could affect an organization’s future success.

Providing comprehensive mental health benefits can help address these issues and significantly improve productivity. Research from the American Psychiatric Association found that unresolved depression can reduce productivity by 35%, leading to a total economic loss in excess of $210 billion per year due to absenteeism, low productivity and higher medical costs. Helping employees address conditions like stress, depression and anxiety can be beneficial for employees and the business.

Providing employees with the help they need can help improve employee engagement in and outside the (in-person or virtual) classroom, making it easier to keep existing employees on board. Investing in employee mental health and wellness sends a signal that the employer cares about employees as people, making it a great way to retain employees and promote learner engagement.

Many business leaders understand the mental health and stress crisis amongst employees. It’s hard to miss given waves of high turnover. But some are yet to connect the dots between mental health and wellness and employee engagement and retention. Investing in employees’ mental health can be a better solution than waging perennial price wars with competitors for employees.

When employers offer comprehensive mental health and wellness benefits, including awareness and training efforts, they can present their investment in employees as a part of a workplace culture that values individuals and provides the help people need to live their best lives. That’s a message that can help your organizations stand out from competitors who don’t extend a helping hand to employees in need.

Moving Forward

The bottom line is that mental health is integral to our overall health. When left unaddressed, mental health can take a toll on physical health, in addition to the negative impact it has on motivation, productivity and learning. Learning and business leaders who recognize this and respond with generous mental health and wellness benefits will support improved performance and learning over time, in addition to engaging and retaining their people.