But during the pandemic, more than ever, companies supported employees' mental health with benefits intended to connect workers with therapists, encourage mindfulness and re-institute work-life boundaries. By summer, social justice movements prompted employers to highlight their mental health resources to help employees navigate racial trauma, too.
Now, many companies are figuring out how to bring workers back into a physical space, which could complicate employee mental health even further, says Yu Tse Heng, a management researcher at the University of Washington's Foster School of Business.
"As much as employees struggled with working from home, many have benefited from more flexibility and autonomy in determining how their work day is structured. For example, employees could take short breaks or a power nap during the day when they felt exhausted," she says.
"Offering employees the flexibility and tools to navigate their own recovery will definitely go a long way in helping employees protect their mental health as they head back to the office."
CNBC Make It spoke with some forward-thinking companies about how they are supporting the mental wellbeing of their employees. Here's what they're doing.
Experts agree that encouraging employees to prioritize wellbeing means little if they don't have time off to do so. After working at such high capacity during the pandemic, some companies are giving workers back their time.
Accounting firm PwC, for instance, set a companywide a goal of shortening meetings by 25%, encouraging managers to do things like cut hour-long appointments to 45 minutes, says leadership development and wellbeing leader DeAnne Aussem.
PwC is also encouraging employees to block out Fridays after 12 p.m. local time as protected, non-bookable time on their calendars. They can use this uninterrupted block for anything from focus work to taking time off, knowing they won't miss meeting or a deadline.
And the firm increased the number of companywide days off around major summer holidays — such as the Friday before Memorial Day and Labor Day.
PwC recently made headlines for offering a $250 vacation bonus to employees who take 40 consecutive hours of vacation at a time, up to once per quarter, for a total $1,000 yearly vacation bonus.
Teams at PwC also include wellness objectives in performance goals, Aussem says, which means they're literally being paid to prioritize their health and wellbeing at work. This also builds in accountability. If an employee made a wellness goal to use more vacation time but is leaving it on the table, for example, a manager can check in and make a plan.
On-demand and app-based mental health providers boomed in the last year, with companies offering workers free or discounted subscriptions for teletherapy (such as through BetterHelp and Talkspace) or guided meditation (like through Calm and Headspace).
Software company Zendesk partnered with mental health benefits provider Modern Health starting in May 2020 to offer easy-to-access resources, including therapy, coaching and videos. The company saw 25% global usage among employees within the first week and that engagement has held strong, says Zendesk director of global benefits Evangeline Mendiola.
At consulting firm EY, Mike Weiner, a mental health clinician and EY Assist leader, has seen an uptick in interest for behavioral health coaching, too: "It's not just therapy for issues like depression and anxiety, but it can help people be proactive with issues like burnout, stress or helping people stick to a wellbeing routine."
EY also boosted its mental health offerings to 25 no-cost sessions for counseling or mental health coaching per employee per year. And it extended that benefit to all family members in the household, including domestic partnerships, says Weiner. This means, for example, children of any age, parents and grandparents living in the household are covered.
"We want to recognize that if you're living with a family member experiencing significant distress who may not have coverage of their own, that impacts you too," Weiner says.
The last year highlighted ongoing racial inequities in so many ways. So it's important that mental health care resources be inclusive and reflect the needs of those most likely in need of help, says Dr. Nikole Benders-Hadi, a psychiatrist and director of behavioral health at Doctor On Demand.
For instance, more than 60% of Doctor On Demand's clinicians are women, 43% are non-white ethnic minorities, 21% are Black and 20% are LGBTQ+, she says. "When you're going to be vulnerable about your trauma, being able to see a provider who looks like you and can provide culturally competent care leads to better outcomes," Benders-Hadi says.
Financial insecurity can impact mental health, so some organizations are providing extra financial support.
At Calm, the meditation app provider, employees get things like a monthly wellness stipend to be used on services like therapy, gym memberships, nutrition programs, or massages, as well as phone and internet reimbursement and a home office stipend.
"It's imperative that Calm reflects the supportive values internally, shaping the future mental wellness in the workplace," says Scott Domann, Calm's chief people officer.
Companies who provide the space for workers to connect can help them combat social isolation, build resilience in community, and bolster a culture of psychological safety.
Through Modern Health, Zendesk employees take part in community circles, similar to an employee resource group, some of which focus on destigmatizing mental health in the workplace. Others center on conversations about challenges like coping with political and social unrest around the elections or having family members in India during the current virus outbreak, Mandiola says.
It's crucial that organizations de-stigmatize discussing mental health at work so employees feel comfortable using the tools they are given, says Vivek Bapat, senior vice president of purpose and sustainability marketing at SAP, the software company.
In 2019, SAP conducted a study and found that workers overwhelmingly wanted to discuss mental health challenges as it related to work, but felt disempowered to do so and feared retribution.
So beginning in early 2020, Bapat says SAP made a concerted effort to begin destigmatizing mental health discussions in the workplace by having leaders at all levels talk about it. The company also launched campaigns to teach individuals and managers to recognize developing mental health challenges and gave employees April 27 off to emphasize the importance of taking mental health days.
Bapat says some of SAP's initiatives have reached business partners who now want to implement similar resources for their own workforces.