IBM Report: Protecting mental health during a pandemic

Businesses and employees must prioritize health – and that includes mental health

By Dr. William J. Kassler, MD, MPH

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, the world's population is facing considerable social and economic disruption — from the surge in illness and mortality that strain our supply chains and ability to get goods to the pandemic mitigation measures that protect the public’s health. Millions of employees and employers are adjusting to circumstances not seen for over a century.  For many of us the “new normal” is working from home, which may cause additional stress as we deal with our job, spouses, kids, parents and pets — not to mention anxiety regarding the coronavirus infection itself.

As we try to keep ourselves and our families safe and cope with the stress of physical isolation and disrupted routines, we can succumb to feelings of isolation, anxiousness and loneliness. For those with anxiety, depression or other mental health challenges, coping with this stress can aggravate underlying conditions. Managing our mental health problems, for a host of reasons, can often include shame or stigma, and continues to take a backseat to promoting physical wellness.

In an Axios-Ipsos poll out today surveying 1,000 people, 43% of respondents say their emotional well-being has gotten worse in the past week as more people deal with isolation.  

When it comes to work, many companies, including IBM, are prioritizing an inclusive culture and workplace, because mental health is an often-ignored aspect of inclusivity. A recent report from the IBM Institute for Business Value, “How Technology and Data Can Improve Access to Mental Health Resources,” names the work environment as one of the most significant factors that can affect an employee’s mental health and one that employers can influence and describes the role technology can play in providing 24/7 real time care. Companies that set up programs to address workforce well-being and mental health issues can help mitigate many of the negative psychosocial factors that adversely impact people and teams. 

Read IBM’s COVID-19 Action Guide >>

There are three focus areas of our mental health that I think employers and the workforce should prioritize right now:

  1. Resiliencebeing able to bounce back from a traumatic event and adapt to adversity. Resiliency can apply to organizations as well as people, and it’s not an inherent personality trait, but a skill that can be learned, strengthened and practiced.  Companies can foster resiliency through culture and policy. For managers this means understanding if an employee has to home school their children for a few hours, or if the employee just needs to take a break and go for a walk or meditate. At IBM, we provide online educational resources like resilience training and an app-based program that encourages different ways to develop healthy habits that can build mental and emotional resilience.
     
  2. Fearunderstanding that fear is an evolutionary signal that captures our attention when we sense danger. While our initial animal response is fight or flight, our cognitive human brain then forms a plan. Once we asses that risk, make a plan and set that plan in motion, fear is no longer helpful to us — living in a persistent state of fear causes physiological stress that can be dysfunctional and harmful in the long term. Companies can provide tools and resources to help develop a clear plan of action for our workforce, ourselves, our families and our communities — which in turn helps us to put that fear in perspective, focus on action, and find a new sense of equilibrium. Employers can offer confidential support programs that provide employees with online or telephone counseling — studies show that these virtual approaches are as effective as face-to-face treatments.
     
  3. Self-carea combination of what we to do protect our mental and physical health. Adopting policies at the employer level that offer resources for self-care — think mindfulness apps, access to mental health professionals, online courses, exercise videos, etc. — help employees balance their personal and professional lives and stay engaged. IBM provides confidential support programs to IBMers and their families — in the U.S., for example, IBMers can access CafeWell, an online portal that provides recommendations and free tools for mental, physical and financial health, including those tools mentioned above.

Acknowledging and acting on mental distress in these uncertain times is key to lessening the impact, and this is where technology can help. The lessons IBM is learning by working with our employees, clients and academic partners is informing increasingly sophisticated technology designed to strengthen our communities and our workforce.

This includes helping people find and access mental health resources; enabling governments to collaborate across silos to meet the needs of our most vulnerable citizens and reducing the stress of people in transition by matching skills and capabilities with open positions in the labor market.

Even before the outbreak, we saw how technology can directly impact mental health. Last year, we field tested the GRIT (Get Results in Transition) application with the US Department of Veterans Affairs. GRIT is a mobile experience to help veterans and active-duty service members to improve mental resilience and overall well-being. The app combines IBM’s AI and chatbot platforms with neuroscience-based technology from Total Brain to provide veterans customized insights and services right on their devices — from finding a job, writing a resume, using a virtual assistant to get answers to questions, and building emotional and cognitive capacities/resilience and enhancing social connections for support.

There are similar tools available for the business community ‑ for example, IBM has partnered with Tiatros, an online therapeutic and peer support platform is designed to help build resilience in the workforce. The platform uses IBM AI tools such as natural language analytics to supplement standardized psychosocial assessments, provide additional insights to support personalized counseling and as an indicator of treatment progress.

We believe technology like Tiatros and the GRIT app can be scaled and adapted to help a global workforce thrown into a state of uncertainty. Using technology to support open dialogue around mental health can help alleviate any stigma head-on while creating a judgement-free work environment.

As we all collectively face the pandemic, we are naturally focused on our families, communities and livelihoods. While we are living through a traumatic event that will forever change our lives, there is no reason we cannot emerge from this better and stronger and more prepared to nurture the mental health of our workforce.  

William J. Kassler, MD, MPH is the Deputy Chief Health Officer for IBM.

Dr. Kassler has spent his career working at the intersection of clinical care and population health; as a practicing primary care internist, epidemiologist, health services researcher, public sector administrator and health policy expert. You can read his latest work, Turning Barriers Into Benefits to Facilitate Public Health and Business Partnership, in the American Journal of Public Health.

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