Employers struggle with mental health help as traumas pile up

A person is shown in shadow in front of windows.
Mass shootings, the war in Ukraine and other recent events have put more strain on employers’ mental health resources.
(Khim Anne Pangayan / EyeEm/Getty Images)

Americans, shaken from news of the Uvalde and Buffalo massacres, are looking to their employers for help.

Three out of 10 employees who were emotionally affected by recent mass shootings have sought out their organizations’ employee assistance program (EAP) or plan to do so at least in part due to the events, according to a Morning Consult survey of 2,226 working adults for Bloomberg News. The shootings come after the start of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, both of which have resulted in an acceleration of requests for already overwhelmed mental health care practitioners.

“We do tend to see an increase in utilization around national tragedies,” said Dr. Dana Udall, chief clinical officer at Headspace Health, a digital mental health services provider. “And we have definitely seen an uptick in recent weeks.”


According to a survey from the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans and separate research published in the Journal of Insurance Regulation, average EAP utilization rates are typically less than 10%, although they have increased several percentage points during the pandemic as more employees sought help for a variety of issues, including — but not limited to — mental health.

But employers’ support is coming up short. A third of workers whose companies offer an EAP or insurance coverage for mental health care think their employer isn’t doing enough to support their mental health. That number is double for workers whose employers don’t offer either benefit.

Americans’ mental health has worsened during the pandemic, a situation made even more dire by a chronic shortage of licensed providers. Federal data show that 3 out of 4 counties in the U.S. have a severe shortage of mental health providers, while therapists surveyed by the American Psychological Assn. last fall reported a surge in demand for treatment of anxiety and depression, as well as trauma and stress-related disorders. Meanwhile, those seeking help are forced to wait weeks to connect with counselors as wait lists balloon.

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“Employers have increasingly seen the impact of the pandemic on their workers,” said Michael Thompson, president of the nonprofit National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions. Many people experienced greater isolation, financial loss, and death in the family during the pandemic, which has deepened the mental health crisis.

The focus on how businesses have responded has intensified. On Wednesday, the Society for Human Resource Management and Thrive Global, a behavior change technology company, ran a full-page ad in the New York Times urging companies to pledge their commitment to their employees’ mental health.

Ginger Miller, director of health and benefits for Utz Brands, said she’s been taken aback by some of the ways accumulated stress has manifested in the workforce.


She recently got a call from an employee who had to cut back her hours because her husband, who drives a truck for the company, has been suffering PTSD flashbacks triggered by the war in Ukraine. “That never would have occurred to me that one of our associates is having some flashbacks and really struggling with that war,” Miller said. Another driver froze behind the wheel of his vehicle, a reaction later diagnosed as a panic attack stemming from child-care-related stress.

“It’s almost like OK, COVID was hard enough,” she said. “And then you have the war and political unrest and battles going on. It’s really hard to reset and just go about a normal routine without some aspect of what’s going on in the world burdening you.”

Employers are casting about for ways to tackle the crisis. Employee assistance programs that offer short-term counseling, treatment referrals and other resources have been a corporate fixture since the 1940s. But recently, digital startups such as Lyra Health and Headspace Health have leveraged telehealth to gain ground, streamlining the process and slashing wait times with virtual appointments and a suite of online resources.

Workshops and group sessions through these providers have emerged as one way to serve many people at once with limited resources — especially in the wake of national events that have widespread effects. Lyra, Headspace Health, Talkspace and others have hosted gatherings on coping with gun violence and race-based hate crime in response to the recent shootings, often offering guidance for parents on how to talk to their kids about these events.

“One of the advantages of group-type support is that they are more readily scalable and can make maximum use of scarce resources,” Thompson said. “In doing so, you’re actually able to be more specialized in the nature of support you provide. For example, we know that racial trauma has been an ongoing issue,” he said. “People can self-select into the group session, the best fit for their issues. It’s a way to provide extended support.”

In the last two weeks, demand for “disruptive event management” support activities such as group sessions has risen fourfold, said Jim Kinville, a senior EAP director at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. UPMC has created a “toolkit” for customers to use that has tips on how to talk to kids about mass shootings. In Pittsburgh, there was a mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in October 2018.


“A lot of kids internalize this and that creates its own challenges,” said Matthew Hurford, vice president of behavioral health for UPMC Insurance Services. “So we’re discussing it more frequently and making sure it’s an open discussion. People are now much more sensitive to the fact that this can happen anywhere.”