From the Desk of MercyOne

February 16, 2023 | Sophia Kang, MD, MercyOne Psychiatry & Troy Cook, MercyOne division director of business solutions

An employer’s role in supporting behavioral health

As we continue to move further from the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are effects from the pandemic we continue to experience. One of these effects is an increase in behavioral health concerns.

Although mental health was a topic of increasing interest prior to the pandemic, there are several components of mental health that greatly increased during and since the pandemic. Navigating these difficult trends and workforce needs is a continual effort for employers. However, there are key elements that allow us to make more educated and informed decisions to support our teams.

First, the facts:

Multiple research studies have shown an increase in anxiety and depression. That is likely not news to members of ABI, as many employers have experienced these same trends.

The autonomic nervous system - a part of the nervous system - was named, as it was believed to not be under our voluntary control as in “automatic". However, we have become more aware of the role of breathing and other mindfulness based exercises that affect and regulate this aspect of the nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is divided into two parts:

  • the sympathetic, which is similar to the gas pedal and its activation causes a fight or flight response, and
  • the parasympathetic which is similar to the brake pedal and is activated during the relaxation response.

Normally, these two systems work in harmony balancing each other and spontaneously switching between one another. For example, we can feel anxious for a few moments due to sudden change in our environment, but soon after, the relaxation response kicks in. However, when our body is stuck in a sympathetic response, we feel anxious all the time, or when it gets stuck in parasympathetic response we feel frozen in fear.

During COVID-19, there was an increase in alcohol, opiates and cannabis intake. As well, teenage mental health worsened, including an increased number of emotional abuse reports by high school students from a parent or other adult figure in the home.

These alarming trends are likely direct results of the never-before stresses being dealt with during the pandemic. For many, these stresses pushed their autonomic nervous system to brink.

As employers, we continue to evaluate the mental health needs of their workforce and adjust their environments for the ever-changing world, there are both historic and innovative solutions and programs to assist.

Employee assistance programs (EAP) continue to be important parts of supporting strong mental health. MercyOnebelieves in these approaches and offers an EAP solution for employers. Additionally, new tools to compliment the EAP approach are gaining momentum and should be considered by employers. Often these solutions use technology with intuitive apps encouraging mindfulness of one’s personal mental and physical state and strategies to address problem areas or periods of time.

For example, meditation works for many and there are many studies providing proof of the lowering of blood pressure and heart rate with this technique. Additionally, almost everyone has heard a medical provider share the benefits of regular exercise in supporting mental health. Studies continue to show the significant benefits of physical activity to improve depression and other behavioral health diseases.

The medical community has also seen the value of nutritional health on behavioral health. Several studies have shown the connection to specific diets to the reduction of depression and anxiety. Several employers we have talked with have discovered the value of providing employees with resources to become educated and aware of specific dietary approaches to best fit an individual needs.

The most successful employers we partner with commonly discuss the need to have tremendous flexibility to their approach in supporting their teams’ mental well-being and recognize the solutions that worked best yesterday may not be appropriate for their workforce today. The pandemic certainly reduced the stigma associated with behavioral health. As an employer or an employee, recognizing the need to support mental health is a key step in developing effective strategies to address these important needs.

Please visit MercyOne Business Solutions for resources and information regarding Employee Assistance Programs.

Sophia Kang, MD, MercyOne Psychiatry
Dr. Kang is a board-certified psychiatrist and an educator. She finished her residency at the University of Arizona Tucson and worked there following her residency as faculty teaching residents and medical students. She has been with MercyOne since 2018 and worked in various settings including inpatient, substance abuse as well as outpatient clinic. Her interests include understanding the role of trauma in mental illness, incorporating nutrition, physical exercise, mindfulness and self-compassion along with medication management in its treatment.  

Troy Cook, MercyOne division director of business solutions
Troy has more than 25 years of experience serving companies ranging from Fortune 100 firms to small family-owned businesses. As the past president of the Iowa Association of Health Underwriters, he has extensive understanding of health care, benefits and public policy solutions to generate positive results in a competitive environment. At MercyOne, Troy provides leadership to support new and existing partnered employer health strategies across MercyOne, including Business Solutions offerings of employee wellness programs, executive health, on-site screening services, occupational health, and partnered benefit design, among others.