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More people value online counseling for mental health support

12 Jan, 2021 Mental health support

The dramatic stresses and uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic are leading people to become more aware, and more accepting, of the need for individual mental health support. The result is that mental health is becoming largely destigmatized – people discuss it more in online forums and are more open about it in the workplace. People are also more accepting of the value and convenience of online mental health counseling, as noted by PwC in its report, “Medical cost trend: Behind the numbers 2021”:

As healthcare providers around the globe abandoned in-person care for nonessential services in order to help slow the spread of the virus, governments and private payers removed barriers to virtual care. The result has been a boom in virtual care, including mental health treatment. This shift holds the promise of savings, because virtual care is typically less expensive.

“It has become more ordinary to seek help for mental health,” said Ken Duckworth, Chief Medical Information Officer for the US National Alliance on Mental Illness, in December 2020. Traditionally, people didn’t dare mention their mental health concerns to their work colleagues or management. They felt they would look weak if they raised their concerns, and this would undermine their prospects of advancement or being entrusted with key workplace activities. 

Past surveys showed that admitting to a mental health condition was considered harder than confessing to a drink problem or going bankrupt. For instance, a survey reported in The Guardian newspaper in 2009 found that almost a third of respondents believed someone with a mental health problem couldn’t do a responsible job.

The big picture

So, what is mental health? The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as:

“a state of wellbeing in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

According to the CDC in June 2020, 40% of US adults were struggling with at least one serious mental health issue amid ongoing COVID-19 challenges. About 30% of the CDC’s survey respondents reported suffering from anxiety or depression and 26% were dealing with trauma or a stress-related disorder. And the introduction of the ‘magic’ solution of COVID vaccines is turning out to be a complex and delayed process.

Investment in mental health initiatives by government and other employers will support people who are suffering badly from the mental health toll caused by the pandemic on top of the usual stresses they face in their lives. The pandemic has disrupted or halted critical mental health services in 93% of countries worldwide as the demand for mental health is increasing, according to WHO survey results from 130 countries, reported in October 2020.

Attending to the mental health needs of people creates societal benefits. In its October 2020 report, the WHO said studies show that “every US$1 spent on evidence-based care for depression and anxiety returns US$5.”

Employers are providing more workplace mental health support

Employers are starting to invest more time and money to improve employees’ wellbeing, according to Diane Schwartz, CEO of Ragan Communications, in December 2020. She believes the destigmatizing is part of a permanent change in several areas of employee wellbeing. Acknowledging that it’s okay to not be okay is a great step forward in the workplace, especially for communication professionals.

Image: 2021 Employee wellness industry trends report – Wellable

Responses to a survey of US health insurance brokers who serve thousands of companies and millions of employees summarized the 2021 plans of employers for employee wellness programs. The above chart compiled from the survey shows that US employers intend to substantially increase their commitment to employee wellness in 2021, including mental health (an average increase of 88%) and stress management (81%).

The need is there. Most recent surveys of workers, conducted for Morneau Shepell’s Mental Health Index up to November 2020, found that mental health stresses continued to rise:

The level of mental health in November remains concerning as it indicates that the working population in all four geographies [US, UK, Canada and Australia] is significantly distressed when compared to mental health scores prior to 2020.

Health experts warn us more recently that vaccines aren’t a magic solution for COVID-19 problems, and death rates in major countries like the USA, UK and Europe continue to rise at a record rate at the time of writing, in January 2021.

Image: Morneau Shepell’s mental stress graph (cumulative) for April-November 2020

A score of 50 in this graph indicates no change since the previous month. The scores for the working population of all four significant countries rose strongly and consistently in the 6 months to November 2020.

But employers need to lift their game

Merely providing support for employees dealing with the results of their work stress addresses only half the issue. Employers need to address the causes of stress as well. Some of the reasons for mental health problems in the workplace and actions that employers need to take will be discussed in my next article. The reasons for work stress include:

  • high and low job demands
  • low job control
  • poor support
  • poor workplace relationships (includes work-related bullying)
  • low role clarity
  • poor organizational change management
  • low reward and recognition
  • poor organizational justice
  • poor environmental conditions
  • remote and isolated work
  • violent or traumatic events.

Professional communication is especially stressful during COVID-19

Work-related stress is the physical, mental and emotional reactions that occur when a worker believes the demands of their work exceed their ability or resources to cope – the underlying elements to sustaining good mental health and wellbeing. Communication professionals experience mainly through dealing with incessant deadlines and big workloads.

Professional communication is a significant profession. Around 68,000 professionals worked in the UK public relations profession as at November 2020, according to data from Statista. Many more either work under another job title, or as low-profile freelancers, or in an informal PR capacity. (This is one of the weaknesses of the PR profession – formal qualifications are not necessary.) In the US, the equivalent national figure was estimated at 245,000 “Public Relations Specialists” in May 2019, according to the latest data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As I recently noted, professional communication is stressful for practitioners. Recent surveys have found that stress is a contributing factor in lower average mental wellbeing in PR. For instance, a 2019 UK survey of members of the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) found that 31% of PR professionals said they found their job very stressful compared with just 19% of UK workers overall. Stress levels were even higher in PR firms (34%) compared with those working in-house (26%).

COVID-19 has understandably increased stress for PR professionals. For instance, an August 2020 survey for the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) found that 8 in 10 PR professionals reported feeling mental health impact from the pandemic.  Recognition of the positive value of good communication in the pandemic stands in contrast to a marked depreciation in the mental health and wellbeing of individuals employed in communications roles during the crisis, the CIPR survey found. The survey found that PR is valued more by their organization, but this comes at a cost:

  • Over half of respondents reported their organization placed ‘a lot’ of value on communication during the emergency
  • 82% of respondents answered ‘yes’ to feeling a mental health impact of the Covid-19 pandemic
  • Nearly 50% were working longer hours, with one-third of practitioners working an extra 1-2 hours per day, and over 15% working five or more extra hours a day
  • Less than a quarter had accessed mental health support in the last six months.

Recent surveys underline the reluctance of communication professionals to report workplace stress. For instance, 80% of the respondents in a survey conducted for the UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations Health Group in August 2020, reported that the pandemic had impacted on their mental health, but only 22% had accessed any mental health support in the previous 6 months. The upside of this was that over half of the respondents reported their organization placed ‘a lot’ of value on communication during the emergency. But nearly 50% had worked longer hours, with one-third working an extra 1-2 hours per day on average.

Becoming equipped to cope better, feel productive and fruitful, and to be able to contribute positively to your team will be essential to staying safe both during and after this pandemic event. These are the skills that help you pave the way forward. If you don’t have these skills, then you should engage in personal development, states an Australian Mental Health and Wellbeing Guide for PR and business communicators.

What you can do to reduce your work stress

Here are some of the things you can do to reduce work stress, whether you work in the office or remotely:

1. Actively look after your physical self

Two of the most useful activities you can do at work are:

(a) Get out of the office for lunchtime walks.

You can make it a little competitive with yourself by measuring the number of steps you take. I do this with my iPhone. Its activity app automatically does this for you. Even if you walk the same distance and the same location each day, this physical activity can create personal satisfaction from accumulating consistent walks over time – and you will feel better for this.

(b) Arrange a healthy snack for yourself during your work day.

A snack is a great physical and mental health booster for those times when you need a break and some more energy, say, mid-afternoon. I remember doing an internal consulting contract for the State office of a national construction firm some years ago. They obligingly provided plenty of cream biscuits for staff in the kitchen area, but even though delicious, biscuits only increased calories. I discussed this with a few staff, and we talked management into providing fresh fruit and nuts daily instead. Much healthier and just as appetizing!

2. Improve your surroundings at work

(a) See what you can do to improve the layout of your work area.

Tidy it up. Put some family photos on your desk. Try bringing in a small plant or orchid for your desk. Change your daily drink to something different like better quality coffee or a trendy drink during breaks.

(b) Make sure the lighting is comfortable for your eyes.

When I started in one of my past jobs, I was allocated an internal office that didn’t get any natural light. I didn’t object to this because I didn’t want to be difficult, but before long I was getting headaches and my eyes started to lose their sharpness of focus. An optician prescribed glasses for me for the first time, making me feel older all of a sudden! Then I was promoted and given a new office with plenty of glass for natural light. No more need for glasses, and I have never needed them in the years since (with a bit of help periodically from doing some natural vision exercises). You should check the lighting in your office or work area, and see what you can do to improve it if you think if would benefit your eyes.

3. Create regular short breaks

If you are like me, you probably don’t take enough breaks from work at the computer. Why don’t you try an app to encourage you to take timely breaks? I tried this recently after seeing someone recommend the Stretchly ‘break time reminder’ app. However, I found it quite disruptive. It would blank out my screen every 10 minutes for 30 seconds, and would show an activity, for instance, to do for the eyes, or to stretch the back, etc. When it wanted me to climb stairs, I decided all this was too much – because I am working from home at ground level! Also, every hour it would stop my computer from functioning for 3 minutes at inopportune times for me to go and take a break. These breaks were intrusive. I didn’t like the restrictions at all, and couldn’t change them. That was the end of Stretchly for me. Will look at other apps. But there are many on the market you could choose from. The University of Missouri lists a number of apps for wellness activities and breaks – many are free.

4. Show gratitude to your co-workers

Giving gratitude or recognition to fellow workers for their achievements or efforts is all-too-rare, but hugely beneficial. You can show your appreciation to your team whether you are their boss or a colleague. We all love to be appreciated! You can do this very simply, just by thanking them in person or giving them/sending them a note of thanks. There are many other ways as well to offer your thanks.

I believe giving gratitude and recognition to others are two of the most effective things you can do at work, at home, or anywhere. What’s more, studies show that giving gratitude is in itself rewarding to you – giving you a greater feeling of life satisfaction and job satisfaction – and fewer depressive symptoms.These two recent articles give you many ideas on what you can do to give gratitude and recognition:

Positive Reinforcement in the Workplace (90+ Examples & Reward Ideas)

Unleash The Gratitude Towards Your Coworkers! 10 Ways to Show Your Appreciation   

5. Investigate counseling for yourself or others

Morneau Shepell’s Mental Health Index for the period April-October 2020, found the top three reported sources of mental health support for workers were the same across all regions – from family members, followed by friends and co-workers, and then mental health professionals.

Image: Morneau Shepell Mental Health Index Report, April-October 2020.

As noted earlier, some employers have also begun to support the use of counseling as a way for employees to help address the greater stress in their lives caused by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the reduction in stigmatization, many people still feel awkward about addressing their need for mental health counseling, especially as face-to-face counseling often means they need to take embarrassing time from work to visit the counseling practice. This can require travelling time to the location, and is subject to the availability of a counselor. Cost of counseling is another factor as well.

“It has never been clearer that employers’ support for mental health and wellbeing is essential for business productivity. Morneau Shepell’s Mental Health Index shows that since the pandemic, the decline in the mental health of employed people has been unprecedented, and we have seen a corresponding decline in the ability to focus and be productive, given the impact of emotions,” said Paula Allen from Morneau Shepell, reported in PR Daily.

Online counseling opens a new door to mental health support

What is online counseling?  

Online counseling uses technology to provide a more flexible mental health support service. Options include video conferencing with a counselor, live chat, and phone sessions. Such professional counseling is available at any time, anywhere, through a computer, tablet or phone. Most counselors are based and licensed in the US, but clients can be located anywhere in the world.

The largest online counseling firm is BetterHelp, which is based in Silicon Valley, with clients from around the world. BetterHelp can connect clients with its counsellors in any country. A wide range of therapists can provide the most suitable relationship for clients.

Flexible fit for busy time commitments

Growing lifestyle demands, busy work schedules, school drop-offs and pick-ups, and distance from service providers makes online therapy a flexible solution. This also cuts the cost of childcare if you are obliged to pay someone to look after your children while you go to face-to-face counseling sessions.

Contact with your counselor

You can communicate with your counsellor in four ways:

  • Exchanging messages with your counselor
  • Chatting live with them via apps
  • Speaking over the phone with them
  • Video conferencing with them.

You can use different ways at different times as you wish, based on your needs, availability, and convenience.

What happens when you start

You start by filling in an online form in which you outline your objectives, preferences, and the type of issues you are dealing with. You are then matched to an available counselor who fits your requirements. Different counselors have different approaches and areas of focus, so it’s important to find the right person who can achieve the best results for you. You have the comfort of knowing you can be matched with a different counselor if you feel the initial person isn’t a good fit for you.

How much does it cost?

The cost of counseling, for instance through BetterHelp, ranges from $60 to $90 per week, billed every 4 weeks. It is based on your location, preferences, and therapist availability. You can cancel your membership at any time for any reason. Health insurance cover may help to some extent.

Proven effectiveness

As noted in one of my recent articles, research has found the online option is just as effective as face-to-face counseling. The National Library of Medicine at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), one of the world’s foremost medical research centers, has published many rigorous academic research articles reporting on the effectiveness of online counseling. For instance, at least 9 research-based articles about online mental health counseling have been published by the NIH since 2014, all confirming its effectiveness.

Firms providing online counseling can provide feedback and testimonials from users. They find it immensely satisfying to help people improve their outlook on life.

Your privacy and confidentiality are fully protected.

The whole basis of counseling is to provide a safe and secure service that helps clients. You can even stay anonymous if you wish – not necessarily providing your full name.

Conclusion

If you feel you need mental health support, online counseling is an effective option for you.

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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