Struggling with surge capacity: A spotlight on the current state of employee emotional health

“We can’t wait for employees to reach out to us. We need to reach out to them,” says Dan Eck, Global Clinical Specialist at ComPsych. Read on to learn more about how employers can help with employee mental health in a meaningful way.

In 2020, employees have experienced sustained stress at unprecedented levels. Voya Employee Benefits recently spoke with Dan Eck, LCPC, a Global Clinical Specialist at ComPsych Corporation, which is Voya’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) services provider. We discussed about how employees are functioning within this environment, and what to do about it. 


What do you see as the role of an EAP like ComPsych in today’s environment?

Right now, we’re helping people adjust to a new normal within the framework of the pandemic. One of the conversations we’re having with people is about surge capacity. Surge capacity is defined in psychology as being in a chronically stressful or uncertain situation where your fight or flight stress response is activated almost constantly. This depletes us of our energy and our cognitive resources. It also can leave us with anger or lasting sadness, not to mention a real lack of motivation.

What are the tools you can give employees to help with these emotions?

In this environment, we need to have honest conversations with each other about our experience. We’re encouraging employees to acknowledge their current experience and accept their experience.  When we accept where we are and what we are experiencing it allows us to be better positioned to do something to feel a little better or feel a little more sense of control.

How do you see this struggle showing up in the workplace?  

We’re seeing a dip in productivity right now as people are literally exhausted. And it's not just COVID. It's everything that's going on around us, from wildfires and hurricanes to people displaced in a pandemic and kids learning at home.  We are also seeing increase in irritability and restlessness.

ComPsych did a survey with our customers which found that 46% of respondents report struggling with depressive or anxious symptoms. That's a very high number. We've seen a more than 30% increase in crisis calls, suicidal ideation, and domestic violence. Those numbers are going to have an impact on the workplace.

What can employers do to support their employees right now?

The most effective thing for employers to do is ask their employees, “What do you need from us?” The answer might be different things in different parts of the country. People in California or in parts of Washington are facing vastly different challenges than people in Illinois or Virginia.

Employers shouldn’t wait for their employees to engage with their EAP. Companies would benefit from going to employees and ask what support they need. From there, engage with the EAP to see how we can meet these needs.  Traditional training formats are not always as effective when people are finding themselves struggling so much or so often. 

What does work is asking employees what’s getting in the way of taking care of themselves the way they might want. The key is to be really purposeful and intentional on how you use their time to support them, instead of throwing pre-packaged support their way.

In practical terms, what does that focused support from employers look like?

We have great resources at  that help leaders and managers figure out how to start. It’s important to find out the biggest issues for people within the organization. It might be helpful to send an email survey with questions like, "Are you having trouble sleeping? Are you having communication issues in your relationships? Are you short-tempered with your kids?” Once you know the results, you can concentrate on those top areas. It’s important, however, to be clear that the answers will be kept confidential.

What if you're an employer that does not have an EAP provider or service?

EAPs are an amazing resource for employees. That being said, if an employer doesn’t have an EAP, it’s important for them to help link employees with local mental health counselors. There are counselors in most areas that companies can engage with, strategize with, and talk with about a comprehensive program.

Also, it’s worth speaking with an EAP program even if you don’t have one about doing things for an ad hoc fee to help with specific needs.

What would you say to someone who is struggling right now?

You don't have to have all the answers. You don't have to figure it all out. It’s easy to tell yourself that you shouldn’t be feeling the way you are, but this is your emotional experience and it’s important to

accept that. For me, I found a release in playing the piano. Five minutes a day, I'll sit and play. It helps me express my emotions. For some, that release might come through woodworking, knitting or reading a book.

It’s important to say, "I need to spend some time with me." When you do that, it’s easier to engage more purposefully and more intentionally in those other things that you know need to be done.

If you find you don’t have interest in doing anything, it might be time to reach out for extra help. Very few, if any, successful people in the world have been successful on their own. So why would our mental health success or our emotional success be something that we have to manage on our own?

What is one of the most important things we should remember to do as we interact with co-workers?

Right now, empathy is so important. You just don’t know if the person you’re speaking to is struggling. We need to be more caring and supportive toward one another.

When we offer empathy to other people our brain releases oxytocin. Oxytocin is the trust hormone and it makes us feel better. It lifts our mood, improves our brain efficiency, turns off the fight or flight stress response in our brain and helps us to deescalate. When you make a genuine attempt to understand someone else’s experience, you’re not only contributing to their wellness, but to your own wellness too.


Next steps:

  • For more information about ComPsych Corporation, visit
  • To learn more about the products available through Voya Employee Benefits that include access to value-added services like EAPs, contact your Voya Employee Benefits representative.

Employee Assistance Program services are provided by ComPsych® Corporation, Chicago, IL.

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