The New Normal: Dealing with Employee Stress

Concerns over health, finances and family dominate the working class, impacting their lives on a daily basis.

Depending on the source, we can expect to see a Coronavirus vaccine by the end of the year, or even as early as October. After the devastation of the pandemic, there is light at the end of the tunnel. But will businesses ever really get back to “normal?” That is the looming question. What will be the lasting effects on the workforce, and what will be required of employers?

First, we need to look at the changes that have taken place in basic business operations since the pandemic started. As we know, controlling the virus started with business shutdowns to reduce the spread. When much of the workforce was mandated or encouraged to stay at home, employers scrambled to implement work-from-home strategies. But there is also a newly designated class of “essential” workers who have had to carry on as usual. While there are numerous ways to classify employees, this is new. With the exception of certain healthcare professionals, essential employees are likely to be the lowest paid workers, in service industries, or production of essential products. Despite the differences, with one class sequestered at home, and the other forced to go out into a newly dangerous work-world; the effect has been an overwhelming increase in stress.

Surprisingly, as an employer or human resources decision-maker, you are still dealing with the same basic issues, even though there is a seismic shift in the landscape. Your job is about recruiting and retaining the best talent; creating a good workforce management plan; and increasing employee engagement and satisfaction.

First, it is productive to look at employee issues before the pandemic started. What we find is that stress was already a growing problem. One of the biggest HR issues has been helping workers create and maintain a good work-life balance. The pandemic just exacerbated these problems. MetLife’s 18th Annual U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study, 2020, reported that 4 in 10 employees struggle to navigate the demands that come with today’s more flexible, “always-on” work-life world in 2019.

This struggle translates into stress for employees which affects their well-being, productivity and job satisfaction. Employees reported that the top 3 sources of stress in their lives were personal finances, work, and personal or family health, in 2019. Now, according to the MetLife study, 67% of employees are feeling stressed because of the COVID-19 virus. Lower income workers are feeling the effects at a higher rate. 70% of workers who make less than $50,000 a year are stressed because of the virus. The added stress is reported as coming from fear of contracting the virus, fear of a loved-one or friend getting the virus, and the effects of social distancing or isolation. If you overlay that against employee stresses before the virus, you now have a boiling caldron of employee fears.

Numerous studies have reported an increase in adverse mental health conditions. A CDC study shows that during late June, 40% of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health. 51% of essential workers reported an adverse mental or behavioral health condition, including anxiety disorder or depressive disorder. In addition to the fears of getting the disease, the virus has had an effect on the top 3 sources of pre-COVID stressors. Financial stress due to layoffs or furloughs has increased. Job stress has increased. Stress about personal or family health has increased. And workers financial stresses and health concerns are closely intertwined. For low-wage workers, ACA plans leave a huge gap in coverage because of high deductibles and co-pays. On average, they have to spend $6,000 in deductibles and co-pays, before they access full coverage. With the average low-wage worker having less than $1000 in savings, an illness or injury could spell financial ruin. So how can an employer bridge these gaps and provide employees with much-needed peace of mind, in face of these uncertainties?

There is good news. You can provide employer-sponsored voluntary insurance to cover everyday medical necessities, not covered by ACA plans. This voluntary insurance requires no contribution from the employer, and pays first dollar when employees need healthcare services. Not only can the right plan be affordable for workers, the benefits are in demand. BusinessWire reported, “in terms of benefits, employees say life insurance benefits that offer lump sum or cash payments, such as indemnity or critical illness insurance would help ease their stress, if offered by their employer.” According to MetLIfe, and our own studies, employees are seeking help to cover in-patient hospital care, out-patient surgeries, emergency room visits and doctor’s office visits. For the highest impact, employers should look for voluntary plans that are offered at a discounted rate, not available on the retail market. This provides true value, and increases your employees’ goodwill and job satisfaction.

But needs are changing, as ongoing research shows. More primary care physicians are moving to virtual office visits, a trend that is likely to continue. These visits need to be covered. Mental health benefits are also becoming more important to employees. The insurance industry will have to adapt to meet changing needs.

Employers have the moral duty to care for the health and well-being of their employees. Employees have always felt like their employer is responsible for their well-being, as reiterated in the independent MetLife study. The same study finds that employees now see benefits as an employer requirement, a belief that has risen to 80%, after the virus. Workers across all spectrums of the workforce are dealing with exponentially increased stress in the new reality. And employers can help provide peace of mind for these workers through voluntary medical insurance, with valuable, usable benefits. It is a win-win solution, that employers need to act upon now.

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