Gov. Spencer Cox issued an executive order Tuesday to provide state employees with four hours of mental health leave.

SALT LAKE CITY – Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson are ordering increased mental health benefits for state employees.

The new benefit will apply to all employees of Utah’s executive branch starting Jan. 1, 2022. The executive order issued by Cox and Henderson will provide four hours of annual administrative leave to address mental health issues.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the importance of mental health to the fore,” Henderson explained. “We hope this order will give employees permission to take time to take care of their mental health without question.”

The state executive order comes in response to two national surveys that found that a significant portion of U.S. adults are now suffering with mental health or substance abuse issues.

That study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control in the summer of 2020, found that 31 percent of American adults reported anxiety or depressive symptoms; 26 percent reported trauma or stress related symptoms; 13 percent admitted to starting or increasing substance abuse; and 11 percent had seriously considered suicide.

At roughly the same time, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that work related concerns left more than 40 percent of U.S. employees feeling hopeless, burned out or exhausted in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those studies found that young adults, racial and ethnic minorities, essential workers and unpaid caregivers experienced disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance abuse and thoughts of suicide.

Yet researchers found that only 37 percent of workers reported having done anything to cope with their negative mental health symptoms.

After reviewing those findings, Cox issued a video message to all state employees on Tuesday.

“As leaders, it is our responsibility to transform the way we think about, talk about and address all forms of mental health challenges,” the governor said. “We all need to do better at taking care of ourselves and those around us.

We need to shift the way we talk about mental health and make the appropriate care more accessible. Together, we can reduce the stigma surrounding mental health.”

Both the CDC and SHRM recommend that the appropriate response for the emotional toll of the COVID-19 pandemic should be increased intervention and preventive efforts to address associated mental health conditions. Community level efforts – including health communication strategies – should prioritize young adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers and unpaid adult caregivers.

While the new health leave benefit will not take effect until 2022, the governor’s office emphasized that state employees may use existing sick leave for preventive and mental health care in the interim.

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