Mental health issues in the workplace have been an area of concern for some time, but with the COVID-19 crisis, the emotional challenges employees are confronting have spiked.
"The coronavirus pandemic has made employees' mental health top-of-mind for employers, as many working adults are feeling a sense of uncertainty," said Nancy Reardon, chief strategy and product officer at Maestro Health, a health and benefits company based in Chicago.
Employees are feeling stress and experiencing significant change. They may:
- Be concerned about the stability of their jobs.
- Have been asked to work from home—or required to come onsite despite heightened health risks.
- Be juggling child and elder care issues and responsibilities.
"Having to care for a disabled child, elderly parents or multiple children can be additional stressors that can affect an employee's emotional and physical well-being, especially as many day cares, community agencies and medical offices are being closed," said Kamilah Thomas, a licensed clinical social worker with KBT Counseling and Consulting in Bellaire, Texas.
Anyone could experience crippling levels of stress and anxiety now, so it's important for HR professionals and people managers to be alert to signs that may indicate employees are struggling to cope.
Signs to Watch For
Nate Masterson, HR manager for personal care products company Maple Holistics in Farmingdale, N.J., suggests managers be on the lookout for potential erratic work hours or lack of availability. These may be indications that something is wrong.
"Now, more than ever, it's important to stay on top of employee productivity, not in terms of the company's success, but for employee well-being," even—or especially—if employees are working at home, Masterson said. "It's important to come from a place of concern for health rather than business advancement during this challenging time."
Thomas encourages employers to be alert to "frequent physical complaints, increased anger or irritability, persistent sadness, excessive worrying, poor sleep patterns, suicidal thoughts, increase in substance use, impulsivity or reckless behavior."
Those changes are not always easy to notice when workers are onsite, much less when supervising remote workers. Check in regularly with teleworkers by phone or video conferencing, which provides an opportunity to gauge and respond to these concerns.
The Support Employees Need
One of the most important things leaders can do is provide an employee assistance program (EAP) or health plan with good mental health coverage, said Aimee Daramus, a licensed clinical psychologist in Chicago. If an EAP is part of the benefits package, now is a good time to remind employees of the availability of such services.
"Companies can also make lists of local mental health resources like therapists, psychiatrists, suicide hotlines, or meditation and yoga classes," she said.
HR professionals can help employees feel supported by role-modeling "the ability to say, 'I'm feeling some anxiety right now,' or other words that normalize talking about mental health," Daramus said. "People will feel less stressed just because they don't have to keep their problems a secret."
Even simply allowing them to talk about their concerns and emotions can help, said clinical psychologist George Vergolias, medical director of R3 Continuum, a behavioral health consultancy in Minneapolis. "HR professionals should strive for early and often communication to employees, including honest and transparent information about what you know and what you don't know" about issues such as job security, as the situation develops.
Employees Working Onsite
Employees still working onsite in industries such as health care, retail, food services and critical manufacturing operations will have different needs than those working from home. Those onsite may have worries about being infected by co-workers or customers. Amazon warehouse employees' concerns on these matters have been much in the news, as an example.
HR leaders and people managers should encourage and support these employees and communicate with them regularly about the safety precautions they are taking and encouraging employees to take. Employees should not report to work if they are experiencing symptoms. Employers may want to screen employees for fever or other symptoms and ask them to go home if necessary.
Employees Working from Home
Employees working from home have additional concerns. Many may not have experience working remotely—or may not be comfortable with it. Some may be dealing with caring for children or others who also are at home. Feelings of isolation may be common.
To support workers at home, Reardon suggests, HR professionals and managers can encourage them to go outside for a walk or to take lunch in another room to get a mental break during the day.
"Another good reminder for employees is to take care of their physical self by drinking a lot of water and eating healthy foods, which can reduce stress and keep employees mentally alert during the workday," she said.
In addition, employers can also encourage home-based workers to take time for their families. "Taking a break from work to walk your dog with your daughter or teach your son math are not only ways working parents can keep their children occupied since they're not in school, but also good mental reminders to prioritize the overall well-being of family members during this time," Reardon said.
These are different times, and everybody is feeling their way through them. It's important to think creatively about supporting employees wherever they are.
At Denver-based Paladina Health, which manages primary care practices, Chief People Officer Allison Velez said that virtual 15-minute meditations are being offered each morning. Teammates who miss the meditation can log in later for a replay.
"The old rules may not apply," Velez said. "This is the time for HR to reinvent themselves. If your old policies and programs aren't meeting the current needs of your teammates, change them." Paladina also has revamped its traditional paid-time-off (PTO) program to create new flexible options like PTO donations to colleagues and allowing employees to borrow against future PTO time they haven't yet accrued.
Diana Vienne, senior partner with Notion Consulting in New York City, offers some ideas for HR professionals to help employees cope:
- Host virtual manager meetups that help support front-line leaders with tips and tricks for managing through this change.
- Offer online toolkits and resources so all employees have what they need to operate productively.
- Conduct a quick round of check-ins from participants at the beginning of every virtual meeting to see what's on people's minds, personally and professionally.
- Provide informal videos from leaders that are empathetic and talk personally about challenges that they understand people are going through.
- Encourage employees working remotely to take time for self-care and movement/exercise during the workday.
Most importantly, during these exceptionally stressful times, keep lines of communication open and regularly point out to employees the resources they have available to them. Remind them we are truly all in this together.
Related SHRM Articles:
Help Alleviate the Anxieties of Employees Working from Home, SHRM Online, March 2020
Coronavirus: Overcoming the Loneliness of Social Distancing, SHRM Online, March 2020
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