With stress and mental health at the forefront of the industry’s focus, now is the time to manage it strategically, and learn from other leading organizations that are finding success.

Research and perceptions about mental health have been evolving for decades, in group health as well as workers’ comp. But thanks to the pandemic, the level of robust conversation around mental health has never been more ubiquitous, across a broad range of industries and sectors.

One word that finds its way into many of those conversations is stress.

We all have stress. You’re giving a big presentation, your calendar’s overbooked this week and you don’t know how you’ll get it all done. You’re planning an important event. Stress is far from a disorder – it can even be beneficial. It revs you up. It focuses you. It can improve your performance.

So what’s the difference between good stress and bad stress, and is stress the same thing as anxiety?

These key issues aren’t always well understood.

“The last two years have afforded millions of us a chance to better understand the difference between what I’ll call day-to day-stress, and anxiety and depressive disorders, and more serious psychological conditions such as PTSD,” said David Vittoria, LCSW, MCAP, ICADC, Chief Behavioral Health Officer, Carisk Partners.

The better we understand these intricacies, said Vittoria, the better we’ll be able to serve the needs of the workforce, and help keep the recovery of injured workers’ moving forward.

“Intermittent, stressful events are what keeps the brain more alert. Eustress is that term clinicians use to describe that type of stress we feel when we’re excited, when we’re energized, but there’s no threat, no imminent danger,” Vittoria said.

“Bad stress is the kind that wears us out. It leaves us jittery. It’s harmful to our health. It can lead to anxiety, confusion, poor concentration or memory, decreased performance.”

That said, there’s a distinct difference between the physiologic and psychological dynamics of stress and the presence of an actual mood or an anxiety disorder, according to Vittoria.

“There’s a fine line between stress and anxiety,” he said. “Both are emotional responses, but stress is typically caused by an external trigger. People under stress experience mental and physical symptoms. They get irritable, angry, experience fatigue, muscle pain, they have stomach problems, even difficulty sleeping.”

Anxiety might manifest with a nearly identical set of symptoms, he added. But anxiety is an internal condition defined by persistent, excessive worry. It doesn’t go away, even in the absence of a stressor.

“That’s a key difference.” Vittoria said. “Anxiety can manifest in a variety of ways – generalized anxiety, panic disorder, phobia, social anxiety, even obsessive-compulsive disorder and PTSD are classified within those anxiety disorders.”

Left unaddressed, these conditions can worsen, and can negatively impact a worker’s physical health and ability to recovery from injury.

“The earlier that we can become involved, with our behavioral health expertise, our team of clinicians and coaches, the earlier that we can become involved in that patient’s life … the more likely we are to be able to intervene [to prevent] greater impairment of function, greater costs on the claim,” he said.

Perception Pitfalls for Employers

Another point that isn’t always well understood, said Vittoria, is that mental health and physical health are intrinsically linked. According to the World Health Organization, “health” means “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

In other words, mental health is health. That’s a core message coming from the WHO and the Centers for Disease Control, and it’s shared by top health and workers’ comp professionals like Vittoria.

“It’s all intertwined,” he said. “People with serious mental health conditions are at a higher risk for experiencing chronic physical conditions, we’ve known that for a long time.” The reverse is true as well, he said. People with chronic physical conditions are at a much higher risk of developing poor mental health.

Correlations have been drawn between chronic pain, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and higher incidences of anxiety, depression and substance misuse. Clinical studies have revealed that chronic pain often induces depression and that up to 85% of patients with chronic pain are affected by severe depression.

Another mistake that can really hurt employers – and their workforce – is making assumptions about workplace stress and mental health. “[They might think] My employees sit at desks all day, they’re not out fighting fires. They don’t have workplace stress, why is this my problem?” Vittoria said. But that’s a myopic view.

According to a recent survey from Mental Health America that included than 11,300 U.S. employees across 17 industries, 8 in 10 employees agreed that workplace stress affects their relationships with friends, family, and co-workers. 7 in 10 employees reported finding it difficult to concentrate at work.

“Those are big numbers,” he said. Ignoring it comes at a high cost.

“Presumably, you need [your employees] to help run your company. If you ignore the conditions that promote trust, safety, compassion, respect, stability, security, creating a sense of meaning for your team members, affording them space for some degree of autonomy and efficacy, for real fulfillment and purpose in their jobs every day … then you cloud yourself with the misperception that your employees don’t face adversity and stress,” he said.

“Dismiss those things at your own peril,” he added. “You may survive today with that totally antiquated mindset, but you likely will not survive the next five years. And you certainly won’t have a workplace that is thriving.”

Employers must adapt to the new realities of a younger, more enlightened, more emotionally intelligent and more communicative workforce, especially when it comes to workplace expectations. Competitive, connected leadership understands that employee mental health needs to be an organizational strategic priority.

“Employees today want to work in a place where the tactical execution of that strategy is obvious to them every day, that they have an opportunity to speak openly and honestly about mental health concerns. Today’s employees expect the places that they work and the leaders they work for to be attuned to this,” he said.

Emulate Those Getting It Right

Leading organizations focus on and invest in employee mental health. And the most successful were already doing so long before we’d ever heard of COVID-19.

These organizations hold mental health and wellbeing as a strategic priority, Vittoria said. They have cultures that speak openly and honestly about personal mental health concerns. They develop emotionally intelligent leaders. They make sure that HR and EAP resources are available to their employees.

“Whether you’re talking about an employee who’s 22 years old or somebody who’s 52 years old, pay attention to the right things, strike the right balance and create a culture that pays close attention to mental health and wellness and provides resources to employees that need it,” he said.

“These leaders speak openly about mental health in the workplace to say, ‘Look, this is a trusted, safe space where we care about your wellbeing. When you need help, ask for it, and here are all the ways that we’re going to support you when you do. Here’s mental health training for you. Here’s our EAP phone number, which is always available 24/7. Here are the insurance benefits provided to you, all of which enable access to proper mental health treatment, and the additional resources you need to be your best self at work.'”

“When I feel like I am not just an employee of, but a participant in a workplace built on the cultural non-negotiables, like mutual trust and respect, then I’m going to be better for that. My boss is going to be better. The company’s going to be better, and in-turn DO better. Customers are going to be better. [If you] take good care of the cultures that you create, that invite people to be the best possible versions of themselves at work, everything else takes care of itself.”

This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Carisk Partners. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.

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