A Mental Health Crisis Is Looming Amid COVID-19 — How Zappos Is Helping Employees Cope

Employee health and wellness has never been more important. While the U.S. and the rest of the world face the coronavirus pandemic and its ripple effects,mental health crisis could be on the horizon. Due to job loss, death, isolation and uncertainty caused be COVID-19, experts say stress and anxiety levels are on the rise. Many believe this can result in a wave of mental-health problems that will need immediate action.

For some companies, such as a Zappos, cultivating a culture that prioritizes mental health has been at the forefront for years prior to the current crisis. Since 2011, normalizing the topic and eliminating stigmas has been a crucial cause taken up by the e-tailer. Over the years, Zappos has offered a range of benefits such as partnering with companies to talk about depression in the workplace, hosting fairs and events focused specifically on mental health, providing counselors for its employees, and offering mental-health first-aid training, among other benefits.

Now, however, the Las Vegas-based company said mental health is the area it has spent the most amount of time on as it looks to combat coronavirus consequences.

“While normally we tend to do the majority of things face to face or via serendipitous interactions, we have become more intentional about the ways we communicate and the frequency of our communications as well,” said Zappos director of employee benefits and diversity Bhawna Provenzano. “Our focus has been to bridge the gap that opened up when providers began to postpone or cancel appointments. While we’ve always had virtual telemedicine, we’ve added additional components so that our employees now can access therapists, dermatologists and other types of specialists right from their phone.”

During this time Provenzano said the most challenging aspect has been technology and transitioning Zappos’ wellness program to better suit employees working from home.

“When evaluating services or new benefits, the technology component is actually a really critical piece for us and sometimes a deal breaker,” she continued. “We have found that the majority of our employees prefer to interact with our programs via their phones over desktop based on data from current or prior programs, such as stress and resiliency, mindfulness, smoking cessation and other health-related programs.”

Zappos has continued to encourage employees to engage in its wellness program, offering rewards for those that do so. Plus, the firm is focused on making the program accessible by incorporating employees’ households whenever possible. “In the most recent challenge, we have asked our employees to show us what they and their families are doing to stay healthy,” Provenzano said. “We also had 31-day challenge going on [in May] where we are [asked] our employees to practice different types of self-care each day of the month.”

In addition to these services, the company has added an online cognitive behavioral therapy app as a tool, and is offering a list of community resources specifically geared towards mental health and emergency crisis hotlines.

Though lockdown restrictions have eased in parts of the U.S., with economies reopening, coronavirus cases are still on the rise and the pandemic’s long-term effects on mental health are yet to be assessed. The United Nations has urged governments to take these ramifications, releasing a May 2020 report signaling a need for action in the area of mental health. Depression already affects 264 million people in the world, the UN report noted, and researchers are recording a higher-than-usual level of symptoms of depression and anxiety. An aggregate of several studies, cited by the UN, confirmed the widespread physiological distress on populations affected by COVID-19, with the U.S. seeing 45% of its residents distressed.

For Jeff Espersen, general manager and chief merchandising officer at Zappos, maintaining company culture while remote, continuing operations through the pandemic and leading with empathy have been the key to navigating the fallout from the pandemic.

“Care about your people and make sure that they’re good,” he said during FN’s webinar series “Leading in a Crisis,” presented by FDRA. “We have a very unique culture in our company and we do a lot of team building events in person that we can’t do right now. So we have virtual happy hours and book clubs, we even have weekly bingo games virtually. Some people do scavenger hunts, send birthday packages and do drive-by wishes, remote arts and crafts for kids. The center of this is to be the calming force. You’ve got to make sure that you continue the communication level.”

Provenzano added, “Our work continues to get harder because there’s always more work to be done. If it wasn’t for our leadership’s support in putting employees first and tools to help make decision-making truly that of individual departments, many of the things that we have done may not have ever come to fruition. So for that, I’m thankful.”

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