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Workers' Mental Health Suffers During the Pandemic: How Managers Can Help

Supervisors must deal with their own stress and that of their workers

A woman wearing a surgical mask in front of a mirror.

​Earlier this month, countries around the globe observed World Mental Health Day—designed to raise awareness about the importance of good mental health in one's personal and work lives. Yet a rash of surveys have painted a bleak picture of workers' mental health amid the coronavirus pandemic.

And in many of those surveys, a managerial trend is evident: Supervisors struggle not only with their own COVID-19-related stress, but also that of their workers.

"We saw that managers feel a great deal of pressure and responsibility for their teams and how they're doing, and that managers continue to be looked to as a source of support," said Reetu Sandhu, senior manager of research at Limeade, an employee experience software company in Bellevue, Wash., that released one of the surveys. "They're not only feeling that pressure, but also navigating their own reality [during the pandemic]."

Mental Health on the Decline

Overall, mental health and well-being has dropped a staggering 33 percent since the pandemic began, according to a survey conducted in August by Hibob, an HR services company based in New York City. Study authors suggested that a combination of working remotely and working onsite is one of the strongest contributors to good mental health during the pandemic.

"As companies continue to power through the pandemic, they cannot ignore their role in supporting employees who are struggling," Hibob CEO Ronni Zehavi said. "Transparency up and down the organization is paramount to creating a strong culture. Without open communication, the struggles employees are facing may go unrecognized, which could impact their productivity and job satisfaction and, therefore, the organization overall."

Since the start of the pandemic, 49 percent of employees reported having less energy for nonwork activities, 42 percent less interest in socializing with friends, 42 percent more trouble sleeping, and 33 percent more alcohol or substance use than usual, according to the Limeade survey, released Oct. 12.

And in its quarterly survey of business leaders on employee well-being, Principal Financial Group reported Oct. 6 that 44 percent of business leaders say employee morale is declining due to the isolation many workers feel in their work-at-home environment. This has driven employee use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs over the last six months, according to 38 percent of respondents. Forty-eight percent of these leaders say they've seen an increase in the use of mental health employee benefits or have fielded more questions about available mental health resources.

How Managers Are Helping

Because caring for kids and helping them with schoolwork—while also working full time—is exhausting for parents, 40 percent of employers are allowing employees to use their sick leave or vacation days for child care needs, Principal Financial Group found. In addition, 38 percent of employers are allowing flexible work hours without a reduction in pay for working parents.

"A number of employers are allowing employees to … start earlier or work later or allowing them to take a longer break midday so that they can meet the needs of their children, in addition to the needs of their job," said Denise Myers, national director of behavioral health services for Marathon Health, a worksite health care provider.

Nearly one-third—32 percent—of employers plan to increase mental health benefits for employees in response to the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, Principal found. Managers should make certain employees know about these benefits.

"Make sure you're communicating even more about the resources that are available," Limeade's Sandhu said. "If not an EAP [employee assistance program], what else is available? This pandemic has highlighted that we're human, and mental health will always be part of our reality. It's not temporary. It's not going to go away."

Keep in mind that not all interactions between managers and employees need to be virtual.

"The limitations of online connections are challenging," Myers said. "Our eyes grow weary. Our brains grow weary. There is only so much viewing on a screen we can do."

Kara Hoogensen, senior vice president with Principal Financial Group, said her organization is "seeing creative ways where people can hold events outside where people are well-spaced: teams getting together at a park, bringing their own food and having lunch, able to be in one another's presence."

Managers can also help employees, Myers said, by reminding them to take frequent breaks to stretch, listen to music or write in a journal.

"Encourage employees to get outside, walk in their neighborhood and see neighbors from a distance, get some physical activity, go to the park," she said. "Connection to nature is one way to even out the one-sidedness of our current lack of social interactions."

Recognition and Candor

Recognizing workers could be more important now than ever before, Hoogensen said.

"Part of it is just people understanding that they're appreciated and acknowledged," she said, adding that cash bonuses, small gifts or delivering meals to workers' homes are some of the ways companies are keeping employees' spirits up.

Finally, it's important for managers "to show a little vulnerability and share with their employees that they, too, are feeling stress, and share what works for them to alleviate that stress. It helps employees feel like they are not alone," Myers said.

Sandhu explained, "It's important to go first and share how you're doing. If you focus on your own well-being and say, 'I'm going to take a mental health day, or go and have a lunch with my family, or pick up my child from day care,' talking about this out loud is something you're doing not only for your own well-being, but it sets an example to say it's OK to talk about this out loud and create this new normal for your own team."


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