Whether or not we have tested positive, we have all been impacted by COVID-19. Who hasn’t stared at the ceiling late at night and wondered: How will my body react if I contract COVID-19? How can I prevent the spread of the virus to my family if I am exposed? When will the economy and businesses rebound? Will my company institute widespread layoffs and cost-cutting measures? How can I reshuffle immediate bills and debt payments? What will the new normal look like, and where will I fit in? Hopes and dreams for the future have, in many cases, been replaced by survival strategies.
Demand for mental health services was already high before COVID-19, with long wait times for appointments with mental health specialists. Depression, anxiety and addiction are increasing; text messages to the federal disaster distress hotline increased by more than 1,000% in April 2020 compared to April 2019. 
For those who were struggling with mental health issues prior to COVID-19, their situation may have been magnified by recent events. Now add individuals newly affected by COVID-19 and seeking treatment or assistance for the first time, and it is easy to see a system at or exceeding capacity.
Employers need to recognize this developing trend and how it affects their workforce as we move beyond 2020. What pre-emptive measures can we take to address this situation? Here are some suggestions.
Educate employees. Provide mental health and wellness information to all employees. This can include free kits and materials offered by the federal and local governments to supplement existing corporate programs.  Exercise, nutrition, sleep and mindfulness are more important than ever. Providing resources to support a strong mind and body is a valuable way to raise awareness of effective mental health practices.
Enhance access to care. Some individuals who have never sought or undergone mental health treatment may be impacted by COVID-19. Everyone is affected by continuous global pandemic headlines, extended shelter-in-place restrictions, economic uncertainties and the risk of testing positive for COVID-19, whether for the self or family members. The mental and emotional strain posed by these events may help cause a range of conditions warranting professional assistance. Employers should promote and highlight all mental health services and resources available. This can include a fresh overview of the employee assistance program and employee benefit offerings.
Eliminate stigma. While eliminating the stigma around mental health conditions is an ongoing strategy for many employers, this initiative should be heightened going forward. Asking for help to cope with a mental health condition can be difficult, especially for someone seeking assistance for the first time. It is important for employers to create a safe and open environment in which workers feel they can comfortably address these issues.
Promote telehealth. Make employees aware of telehealth services and how to use them. In many cases, mental and behavioral health consultations and counseling are well-suited for telehealth. This healthcare delivery method has surged in popularity in response to the COVID-19 environment. Telehealth may be one way to ease the current capacity strain on behavioral health systems.
COVID-19 has redefined many business practices, and the way in which employers protect and care for their employees’ mental health and well-being is among them. While disability and absence management practices were essential before, the impact of COVID-19 has only underscored the value and importance of our discipline and expertise.
> This Sedgwick "Absence Matters" column was originally published in DMEC @Work magazine, July 2020, page 26.