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This is a segment of our COVID-19 response series. Learn more about the series or browse additional content at COVID-19 and the Workforce.

Mental Health

Paul Gionfriddo, the President and CEO of Mental Health America (MHA), addressed Coronavirus and mental health in a statement published on March 12, 2020. Recognizing that associated anxiety will rise as the number of COVID-19 cases increases, especially for employees who have mental health conditions and those who may develop them during this crisis. The post has a list of recommendations that employers can use to assist employees with and without disabilities.

For more information on COVID-19, please visit these resources:

Recognizing Employees’ Mental Health Issues During a Pandemic

Research recently conducted by Accenture estimates that 9-in-10 employees have been touched by mental health challenges; among Millennials, that figure rose to 93 percent. Of the 2,170 employees across the UK who participated in the Accenture survey, 66 percent had personally experienced mental health challenges: Accenture Research: It’s Not 1 in 4; It’s All of Us.

Crises like the COVID-19 pandemic may adversely impact employees who have diagnosed mental illnesses. Employees who have been traumatized in the past, are at increased risk for serious reactions to trauma. Others may develop mental health conditions during the crisis.

The most common conditions in the workplace are depression and anxiety. The following list identifies the signs of major depression and anxiety that you may notice, even if your employees are working from home, and the actions you can take as an employer to assure employees receive the support & services they need to stay healthy and productive.

Only trained mental health professionals can diagnose. This list is provided to help you recognize when someone is in need, not to diagnose the type of behavioral health issue they are experiencing.

Major depressive disorder lasts for at least 2 weeks. It affects an employee’s ability to work and have satisfying relationships.
Some of the signs you may observe:


  • Crying spells
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Neglect of responsibilities and loss of motivation
  • Loss of interest in personal appearance
  • Use of drugs and/or alcohol


  • Fatigue & lack of energy
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Unexplained aches and pains

How to Help

  1. Assess for risk of suicide or harm
  2. Listen non-judgmentally
  3. Give reassurance and information
  4. Encourage appropriate professional help
  5. Encourage self-help and other support strategies

Source: Mental Health First Aid

What to Say and What Not to Say

As you are listening non-judgmentally, saying nothing is not the answer. The following are tips on what you could say to be supportive and helpful.

Say This:

  • You don’t seem like yourself. Do you want to talk about it?
  • It seems like you’re going through a tough time. How can I help?
  • I’m worried about you. Can we talk about what’s going on?
  • Are you comfortable talking about this? If not, is there someone else you can talk to?
  • How can I/we support you?
  • Do you know where you can go for help?
  • Are you thinking about harming yourself? Do you have a plan to harm yourself? (Yes, it’s OK to ask. You won’t put the idea in someone’s head and asking is actually the first step to prevention.)

Avoid Saying:

  • You just need to cheer up/change your attitude.
  • Everyone feels that way sometimes.
  • Just pray about it. (While prayer can be an important source of strength and comfort, it’s not a replacement for treatment.)
  • You should just [fill in the blank].
  • Yeah, we all feel a little crazy now and then.
  • Stop being so negative; just start living.
  • Shake it off.
  • You have the same illness as [fill in the blank].
  • Why are you acting so weird?
  • Nothing (Yes, it may feel awkward to start the conversation, but it can make a difference, so refer to the suggestions at left and then reach out.)

Source: Adapted from the following: GuidanceResources; mentalhealth.gov; National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

The Interactive Process

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, employers are required to begin the interactive process when an employee is having difficulty performing their job and it is reasonable to conclude that the problem may be related to a disability.

The manager should confidentially notify the employee of the performance problem and inquire whether the employee may need a reasonable accommodation to perform the essential functions of their job. The employer is not required to lower performance standards or expectations.

Many employees are working from home at this time, but even in this situation, hiring managers should stay alert to an employee whose performance is lagging. Examples of things that may be said that should put the hiring manager on notice are: an employee’s spouse calls to say the employee cannot work because they cannot focus, or the employee says they have not been themselves since the doctor changed their meds to help them cope.

In the current situation, checking-in with employees on a periodic basis may be a vital lifeline and can prevent performance issues. Once problems are noted, addressing them quickly, confidentially and sensitively, will hopefully enable the employee to meet performance standards with or without an accommodation.

Finally, be prepared to offer support and services. Here are some tips from the American Psychiatric Foundation for managers and HR professionals to support employees:

  • Show empathy and be available
  • Stay connected – Check-in with employees once a week or more often, if possible, to provide support and coaching.
  • Recognize the impact of isolation and loneliness – Consider holding virtual coffee klatches or happy hours. Encourage employees to share stories of how they are coping and when appropriate, infuse appropriate humor into the conversation.
  • Encourage online training to sharpen and/or develop new skills for your employees.
  • Check-in with your EAP to confirm the availability of mental health services and how employees access them. Also connect with your company’s health plan to learn what they are offering to support plan members and pass that information onto employees. Be sure to include all relevant website links and phone numbers for both the EAP and health plan in communicating with employees. If your company has a peer support network, be sure to make employees aware of this resource and how to connect.

Source: Supporting Employees During COVID-19

For more information on accommodations available for employees with mental illness: Job Accommodations Network – Accommodations for Mental Health Impairments.

Insights from our Corporate Partners

  • Have one place where employees can access information on HR policies and resources
    • Build cross-functional groups to work through the new challenges from all angles
  • Explore options to expand mental health benefits
    • Ensure that all employees have access to care
  • Address stigma
    • Should come from leadership
    • Leaders need to openly say that they care, and then show it
    • Mental health is improved in a supportive environment
    • Builds a sense of safety when we feel so little control
  • Create safe spaces
    • People should be able to talk about things outside of work (virtual coffee chats)
    • Not everyone feels comfortable speaking up—ensure there are ways to share anonymously
  • Consider Mental Health Allies
    • Work with HR, Data Privacy and Legal teams to set up curriculum training through third party vendors. The main benefit of this program is having people who can recognize signs in others, when someone may need professional help around mental health, not to diagnose themselves.
  • Engage ERGs
    • Routine calls with each community
    • Create and share resources
    • Act as advocates
  • Share tips for success with employees
    • Limit your news intake. Online check in a couple times a day, not a constant stream.
    • Back to basics: sleep, nutrition, exercise
    • Self-care and self-boundaries. Don’t overwork. Take breaks.
    • Check in on others. Recognize signs of self-isolation (not engaging on calls, not opening video on calls) and point people to professional ERGs
    • Maintaining focus
    • Benefiting from gratitude and reframing negative stress by doing something nice. Pay it forward.
    • Lack of control creates fear, focus on what you can control.
    • Free meditation and mindfulness exercises. HR can offer this to employees.
  • Think about long term needs and effects now
    • Grief counselors
    • How are employees going to re-enter the workplace
    • Training for managers on signs/symptoms and how to best support employee

About the COVID-19 Response Series

As we work together and learn during this unprecedented time, we are guided by two broad principles:

  1. Designing and implementing responses to COVID-19 that are based on facts, objective evidence, and science; and
  2. Ensuring that our responses are genuine, effective, and meaningful by taking into consideration the functional needs of all employees, including individuals with disabilities through the provision of reasonable accommodations, including accessible websites, online systems, mobile apps and other forms of information and communication technologies.

Disability:IN has compiled the following resources to support your disability inclusion work during COVID-19. Please know that more resources will be added as they become available. If you have a resource that isn’t listed but should be, please email Kate Calcutt.

Full COVID-19 Response Series

Photo credit: #WOCinTech Chat