Mental health benefits are becoming America's most competitive office perk in the age of coronavirus

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Starbucks recently announced expanded mental health benefits for 220,000 US workers and their family members.

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  • The novel coronavirus pandemic may drive companies to invest more heavily in mental health benefits.
  • Some companies, like Starbucks and PwC, have already updated their benefits in response to the virus.
  • Companies that provide mental health tools for individuals and workers have seen an uptick in the number of people requesting services.
  • Younger generations, like millennials and Gen Zers, are driving the push for more mental health care at work.
  • This article is part of Business Insider's ongoing series on Better Capitalism.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Michael Fenlon, the chief people officer at professional services firm PwC, meets daily with the company's well-being team to discuss how employees are coping during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Before the outbreak, the team met weekly. Advertisement

Fenlon is in charge of making sure the firm's 55,000 US employees have the resources they need to cope with the crisis, which has forced thousands of Americans into social isolation and quarantine.

It's been a challenge, Fenlon said, because employees feel lonely, anxious, or stressed about the pandemic. Many are working from home while simultaneously caring for children or loved ones, and others may be entirely alone in isolation, all of which can have a negative impact on mental health, he said.

"All of us have a range of anxiety, a deep sense of concern," he said. "There are risks we face in terms of health, and then there are a whole range of different circumstances."
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The coronavirus pandemic has upended work and home life for thousands of Americans, causing increased stress in many. An ongoing survey of more than 80,000 people from survey provider SurveyMonkey found that 86% of Americans are worried about the outbreak in the US, and 91% are concerned about the impact of the virus on the US economy. These added worries about health, safety, and finances can cause elevated levels of anxiety, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Younger generations like millennials and Gen Zers are calling for more tools to help them deal with the increased stress at work.

Yet, mental health benefits are still a relatively new phenomenon for many employers. Just about 13% of companies provide access to onsite stress management programs and 11% provide mindfulness or meditation benefits, according to data from the professional HR membership association Society for Human Resource Management. Mental health benefits are sometimes looped into employee assistance programs, which most companies offer (79%, according to SHRM), but these programs typically have low utilization rates - usually less than 10% of employees use these programs, SHRM reported. But the coronavirus pandemic has encouraged some companies to make changes. For example, Fenlon and his team decided to ramp up the company's mental health benefits in response to the pandemic. PwC recently introduced well-being coaching sessions where employees can reach out to a professional coach to discuss anything that may be causing them stress. They also created an online community for workers to connect with one another to discuss challenges they're facing surrounding coronavirus.Advertisement

The firm already offers employees and dependents six free therapy sessions, confidential emotional support via mobile app, and free apps on guided meditations, sleep, breathing, and relaxing music.

"If companies had not recognized the importance of supporting employees through mental health benefits it's got to be crystal clear now," Fenlon said. "I think those would be the lessons as we look to the future."

A sense of 'urgency'

Online therapy providers have seen a sharp rise in the number of people looking online for mental health resources. Alon Matas, the founder and president of the online counseling service BetterHelp, previously told Insider "the number of new members with concerns of stress and anxiety in February more than doubled compared to February of last year."Advertisement

Henry Albrecht, CEO and founder of Limeade, a company that provides an employee well-being program to employers including Keurig, Dr. Pepper, and UPenn Health, said they expect to see "triple digit growth" in the number of companies interested in emotional-well-being offerings. The company provides tools like stress management programs, and mindfulness and resilience training.

"Our traffic has gone through the roof in the last couple of weeks," he said. "Sadly, sometimes it takes a crisis and economic meltdown to help people understand the importance of prevention, and of care."

The coronavirus has created an added urgency for many companies to provide mental health resources to employees, said Megan Jones Bell, chief science officer at the meditation app Headspace. Employers are also feeling the pressure from younger generations, who are demanding these benefits, she said.Advertisement

Since mid-March, Headspace has seen a 400% increase in requests from companies not yet using the app, seeking support for their employees' mental well-being. Headspace works with employers including Starbucks, Adobe, and GE.

"We've seen companies with whom we've been talking for many months have a new sense of urgency around the need to do something," she said.

Starbucks, for example, recently announced that beginning April 6, all of its employees (which the company calls "partners") who work 20 hours or more per week will now be entitled to expanded mental health benefits through its employee assistance program. Each employee and their family members will be able to access 20 sessions a year with a mental health therapist or coach through the provider Lyra Health, at no cost. The benefit rollout will impact more than 220,000 US workers and their family members, according to Ron Crawford, vice president of global benefits at Starbucks.Advertisement

"With one in five adults experiencing some form of mental illness each year, and with partner feedback about what benefits would be most useful, we knew we could do much more," Crawford told Business Insider.

To ensure every employee knows about the new program, Crawford said the company is communicating the news "through all channels.""We want to ensure every partner, in every store, feels supported and knows how and where to seek help for themselves and others," he said. Advertisement

Younger generations driving change

Although some employers are providing more resources for workers during the pandemic, it may not be the C-suite that is driving the change. Employees - particularly younger generations like Gen Zers and millennials - are demanding their companies offer resources to help address mental health issues, Bell said. And many have become much more vocal about it.

"We've seen it become more part of our cultural lexicon, I think these younger generations are really driving that change," she said. As younger generations become a bigger part of the workforce, it's likely that more companies will find it necessary to invest in mental health benefits, she added.

Millennials do feel their jobs have an outsize role on their overall mental health, Business Insider previously reported. A report from Blue Cross Blue Shield found that millennials are seeing their physical and mental health decline at a faster rate than Gen X as they age. But they're also more likely to go to therapy than previous generations. Advertisement

"Mental health problems are affecting them more and are much more likely to want to talk about it and expect their employers to help them with it," Bell said. "It is positive that they are demanding that they're addressed."

Ultimately, Bell said, this could drive more companies to step up to the plate and provide resources for workers. "I think it's just really about helping people be their best, healthiest, and calmest," she said.

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