David Moeller's retirement plans quickly fell apart in 2019, forcing him to return as the CEO of the Eagan-based floor installation firm he founded in 2003.
Months later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, wiping out 50% of company sales as Best Buy, Kohl's, Target and other corporate customers postponed flooring installations.
To rescue his company, Inside Edge Commercial Interior Services, Moeller laid off some workers, took a Paycheck Protection Program loan and quickly bought seven small companies in a last-ditch effort to diversify products and boost sales.
The actions saved the company but cost him his mental health.
Moeller, 57, said he went from a "happy-go-lucky guy" to one in "a really bad spot."
"I wasn't sleeping. I was drinking too much. And I had been taking Ambien for 20 years," said Moeller, who eventually was diagnosed with depression and sought treatment at Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. He took some time off from work, stopped taking Ambien, started writing about his journey and connected with mental wellness counselors at his company's health insurer Medica.
He recently shared his story with his 250 workers and developed a "Take Five Movement for Better Mental Health and Wellness" program. Now all employees can take an assessment, work with a wellness coach for free and get five days of paid time to focus on their mental health.
So far, 100 employees have signed up.
While larger companies have long had some type of mental health coverage, small firms like Inside Edge are now starting them, with their larger counterparts expanding coverage.
"It's trending that more and more employers are saying they are considering or adding mental health benefits," said Darin Reeser, Securian Financial's regional director of supplemental health. During COVID, "mental health climbed up the ladder. [Today] more than half of employers say that mental health is important to them as a benefit."
At the same time, surveyed employees report clamoring for help and turning to digital phone apps, phone therapy sessions with clinicians and taking paid time off from work to address mental well-being after a stressful three years.
A study by the 300,000 member Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that 70% of surveyed workers reported feeling more stress and anxiety at work in 2020 than any previous year. It hasn't gotten better.
"There is a mental health and well-being crisis that is occurring in our country. So we are seeing a lot of employers address burn out and stress and dissatisfaction with additional [employee] benefit offerings in the mental health and well-being space," said SHRM Chief Human Resource Officer Jim Link. "The uptake on those types of things is certainly increasing from employees."
Engineer Keith Lambert co-founded California-based Oxidizers Inc., a pollution control company that does business with Cargill, Donaldson, Bimbo Bakeries, Lockheed Martin and the Department of Defense. Several of his 38 employees struggled when the pandemic hit. They still had to work on defense contracts but had trouble traveling when airports and hotels slashed staff or shuttered.
"We had cases of depression here with different people. It absolutely was real," Lambert said. At the time, he reached out to his firm's Blue Cross Blue Shield health provider to see what coverage options his firm had. In the meantime, he sent struggling workers home.
"I just said, 'Hey you take the time you need to start feeling whole again,'" he said.
SHRM found that nearly 1 in 3 companies did not know how to develop a mental health benefit or how to choose one offered by their insurance partner, said Wendi Safstrom, president of the group's foundation. The organization now offers a guidebook for members.
In January, SHRM itself partnered with LifeGuides so SHRM's 500 employees could access mental wellness services. Employees now can match themselves with one of LifeGuides's 400 trained "peer guides" — someone who has endured life challenges similar to the employees.
Demand for LifeGuides, which works with small companies and nonprofits, has doubled since the pandemic started, said President Derek Lundsten. The entity works with brokerage firms such as St. Cloud-based Blue Sky Benefit Solutions.
Mental health benefits are especially in demand by younger workers, said Securian's Reeser. At the same time, baby boomer employees often express surprise that it's now OK to talk about mental health in the workplace.
Moeller said he too was shocked when he shared his story at work.
"I did a video for the employees," he said. "The response was overwhelming. I literally had 70 people come into my office or email me sharing their own mental health struggles that I never knew about. And I knew these people for years. It brought me to tears."
The outpouring showed him that it's a new day.
Determined to duplicate his early success, Moeller now is talking to other CEOs, sharing how to set up mental health solutions. A group of 25 were to start a pilot project this month, he said.
"This experience has totally been transformative," Moeller said. "Through this, I found my community and now I am going to grow this community like crazy."