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Promoting Employee Mental Health during COVID-19

There’s little doubt that COVID-19 has left a permanent mark on the workforce. Millions of workers have been forced to adjust to working remotely or work under quarantine conditions for the first time in their careers. Combined with the fear of contracting the virus, all employees anxiously watch as their peers become another unemployment statistic — wondering if they will be next. 

According to the most recent Kaiser Family Foundation Poll, “one in three adults say they have already either lost their job, lost income, or had their hours reduced without pay because of the recent coronavirus outbreak.” Half say that the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health overall.

Taking responsibility for the mental health of employees during COVID-19

During the global pandemic, one of the many concerns that human resource leaders have had to face is that of supporting the emotional and mental well-being of employees. Workers have suddenly been removed from normal interactions with their social groups and collaborative work environments to become solitary workers tethered to computer communication software. Financial worries are impacting many workers. All of this increases the risk of serious mental illness. 

When employers recognize the need to acknowledge mental health and create programs that prevent conditions that put workers first, it pays off for everyone. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “For every US$ 1 put into scaled up treatment for common mental disorders, there is a return of US$ 4 in improved health and productivity.” Preventing mental illness can help support the productivity of the remote workforce, which can lead to better business survivability. 

What can corporate leaders do to promote employee mental health during COVID-19? Further, are there any policies that HR can adopt that will support good mental health once things return to some form of normalcy at work?

Developing policies for employee mental health and well-being

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the most serious crises that human resource has had to deal with, it’s not our first rodeo. There have been health scares in the past, such as SARS and Ebola, that got human resource leaders thinking about ways to protect employees. The well-being of all workers is the responsibility of employers and employees’ collective efforts, therefore wellness education has been a big part of healthcare reform over the last decade. 

The Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) published some guidelines for promoting the mental health of employees during COVID-19 and future crises. These ideas can be used to create your own mental health policies for your employees. Here are some suggested actions your organization can take:

Compassionate Leadership

When leaders manage their teams with understanding and concern, this can go a long way towards promoting mental health during any crisis. WHO advises that “unsupportive managerial or organizational practices”, can be a major risk factor for employee depression and other mental illnesses. It’s important that all managers communicate and demonstrate a sincere concern for the well-being of all employees over any other business objectives. This is especially critical during this time of social distancing when many employees may feel isolated from one another and their peers. It is possible to demonstrate and verbalize concern and care for employees so that they feel supported.

Daily Guidance

Employees can quickly become worried and confused if they don’t understand what’s happening day-to-day with their role. Make sure that managers are communicating on a daily basis what to expect, any changes happening, and the priorities for that day. Set up weekly virtual meetings with the team to discuss work progress and reduce obstacles. Written messages should also be sent out by email after any change happens to alert employees of what they need to know. Set up a toll-free number that employees can call into to listen to updates 24/7 and request more information if needed. This can reduce stress and worry. 

Adaptability and Accessibility

It can be difficult for some employees to adapt to rapid changes and updates during a crisis like the Coronavirus. It’s essential that you emphasize to employees that they are expected to be adaptable and what that means in terms of their job. At the same time, don’t scare them away. It could be as simple as just checking in daily with a supervisor to let them know that things are going okay. At the same time, in order to alleviate stressful situations that can cause mental health problems, it’s important that managers and Technical Support people are immediately accessible should there be a problem. It can be extremely upsetting and frustrating for an employee who cannot perform his or her duties because of a technology problem or a lack of information.

Promote Balance

During any type of change management scenario, such as what has occurred during COVID-19, it is very important that employees understand that while things are out of balance in the world they still need to take care of themselves and their responsibilities. The company should promote work-life balance so that employees are not working too many hours which statistically happens with those who work remotely. Employees should be encouraged to get up from their workstations often and take breaks. The company can offer access to online exercise and cooking programs to help employees live a healthy lifestyle while at home. Exercise has been shown to reduce mental health problems like depression and anxiety. When employees are healthy, nourished, and are getting enough rest they are less likely to suffer from serious mental health breaks.

Provide Extra Support

Nearly one in five employees suffers from some form of mental illness, according to William Kassler, chief medical officer of government health and human services at IBM Watson Health. Every organization needs to have a system for providing additional support to address mental health issues in employees. This can begin by offering health insurance that provides mental health coverage for counseling and medication as needed. An employee assistance program can also be instituted so that employees can call confidentially anytime to get support and referrals to the proper services. At the very least, HR should be willing to field calls from employees who feel overwhelmed or burnt out during this time and help get them to the right support that they need to be productive and happy employees.

Evaluate Workloads

A factor that can cause employees to become overwhelmed and depressed involves their workloads. Employees can often take on too many tasks or have trouble managing their time and therefore it adds up to nothing but frustration. This is especially true during the coronavirus pandemic when people were forced to work at home and had to try to find a way to finish their projects. Or they may have been assigned new ones. Managers should look carefully at the workloads of every employee and make sure that it is reasonable and realistic for each employee to continue to take on the level of work that they are handling. Allocate tasks that can be performed through other means such as software shortcuts and temporary staff support. 

Watch for Employee Drop Outs

It can be easy to assume that just because you’re not hearing from an employee on a regular basis that he or she is doing fine. Many times this is the exact opposite as an employee struggling emotionally and starting to shut down. This is often the start of depression and other types of mental illness. At the very least employees should be checking in at least daily with their management team and or communicating with peers. Management should spend time reviewing any messaging that’s going on in community project management tools like Slack or Trello. If an employee suddenly drops out of the picture management needs to move fast to address any issues that are going on.

Educational Support

It can be terrifying for some employees who have not used certain types of technology in the past as part of their job. For example, the recent dramatic increase in the use of virtual meetings has been quite the learning curve for many employees. In order to help alleviate frustration and stress and employees, it can be quite helpful to offer educational support. This can be as simple as having workshops in which a more expert employee trains newer or less seasoned employees on the new products. Many software companies also offer their own training videos to support this effort. Companies may also want to develop training on topics relating to personal health including mental health concerns.

Mental health is something that many people deal with on a regular basis but they don’t always talk about it. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these issues have come to light and must be dealt with in a compassionate and professional manner. As long as companies have systems for employees to feel safe communicating and seeking help when they need it, the stigmas surrounding mental illness will be eliminated.

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Disclaimer: The information and resources provided herein are not a substitute for experienced legal counsel and does not constitute legal advice or attempt to address the numerous factual issues that inevitably arise in any employment-related dispute. Although this information attempts to cover some major recent developments, it is not all-inclusive, and any recommendations are based upon HR best practices and procedures. We recommend you consult an attorney for legal guidance.

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