Ask HR: Mental Health Amid COVID-19

By Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP July 1, 2020
​SHRM President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP

SHRM President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA Today. The questions are submitted by readers.

Do you have an HR or work-related question you'd like him to answer? Submit it here.


Question: I'm recovering from COVID-19, and it's been rough to say the least; but instead of being understanding, my COO says, "I hope you feel better," and then proceeds to ask me for work-related items. That has incensed me because I do not feel valued as an employee. How can I address this once I return to work? —Anonymous

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: I'm happy to hear you're recovering from COVID-19. I imagine getting back into the swing of things hasn't been easy, but, before you broach this topic, try to consider this from your employer's perspective.

Believe me, I know firsthand how essential it is for leaders to be empathetic and to regularly check in with employees. But at the end of the day, many leaders are almost maniacally focused on the state of business. And, given how COVID-19 has left almost no corner of the workplace untouched, it's possible your company has had to pivot to meet the challenges of the pandemic.

Let's address the main point here: The chief operating officer (COO) asking you about work-related items doesn't mean she doesn't care about your well-being or that you're undervalued. In fact, I would argue quite the opposite—her reliance shows you're valued.

Because you are still recovering, it's not out of the question to respectfully set boundaries, especially if you are on leave or taking time off. You could share that you're not feeling well and ask if you could provide the requested information upon your return. You might also suggest, tactfully, that a colleague assist with these requests in your absence.

If you need help with this conversation, try to find an HR representative who knows your COO's personality and communication style. He or she might be able to provide suggestions on how to successfully communicate not only that you need to recover from COVID-19, but also how you are feeling and what you look for in a leader. Doing so could not only solve your problem now, but strengthen your relationship going forward.

While you may feel disappointed or frustrated with the way your company has been communicating with you, I ask you to consider your relationship with your COO for what it is: a working one.

I wish you a quick recovery!

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Question: My company is preparing to reopen the office. I'm excited to get back to work, but I'm also really worried. I have anxiety and clinical depression that has been exacerbated during the pandemic. Previously, my company hasn't paid much attention to mental health, but I feel like COVID-19 has changed the game. How do I talk about my options with my manager? Can I ask them to provide resources? —Anonymous

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: I'm sorry to hear you are struggling with anxiety and depression. I completely understand why your return to work would bring up mixed emotions.

On the one hand, getting back into a routine can be comforting. But on the other, this "old" routine for many employees is very different from the normal they knew before COVID-19.

I want you to know you're not alone. Nearly 1 in 4 employees report feeling down, depressed or hopeless often, and 41 percent feel burned out, drained or exhausted from their work.

You're exactly right about COVID-19 turning employers' attention to mental health. As companies create return-to-work policies and procedures, many are now offering information and resources to help meet employees' mental health needs.

Does your company offer an employee assistance program (EAP)? If you're unsure, ask HR. Through these programs, many organizations offer mental health resources, such as counseling services, through health insurance carriers and EAPs.

As you know, depression and anxiety can make it difficult to focus on work—especially at a time when the world seems upside down. If you feel like your work will be significantly impacted, I suggest working with your doctor and employer to explore reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

If you go this route, I recommend reflecting on your experience first. I know sifting through and understanding emotions can be difficult. But if you notice something specific—taking public transit, sitting too close to co-workers, etc.—triggers negative thoughts or feelings, focus your efforts on finding an accommodation that addresses that stress, such as telework or a staggered schedule at the office.

Thank you for sharing your struggle. I hope this helps. Have a happy and healthy return to work! 



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