These are stressful times for everyone, and in a work environment where mental illness was already a rising concern for many organizations, the COVID-19 crisis is creating new concerns. Employees are anxious not only about their health and the health of their loved ones but also about the economy, child care, and their job security.
In this feature, we discuss some strategies and tips that companies can implement to help employees maintain their mental health and well-being.
Transparency and Information Are Key
The truth about COVID-19 and its potential impact on the global economy are scary. But what can be even scarier are the hypotheticals people create in their minds when they don’t have all the relevant information they need.
Widely reported panic-buying in the United States and around the world is one example of how people can let their anxiety drive them to extreme actions when they are uncertain about the future. That kind of irrational thinking and behavior can easily find its way into the workplace if left unchecked.
While organizations don’t have all the facts necessary to be able to provide complete transparency into the COVID-19 pandemic from a medical or governmental standpoint, they can serve as a source of reliable information to help counter widespread rumors floating around on social media and other sources.
Looking for and Sharing Truth
Companies generally do have all the necessary facts to provide transparency on how the economic fallout from the pandemic will impact their business. While some of that information may be sensitive, companies and managers should strive to be as upfront as possible with staff when it comes to potential layoffs or closures.
If possible, they can also provide resources for staff who may lose their jobs, such as information about government assistance programs and referrals and references for other employers.
“Transparency is essential during the COVID-19 crisis between management and employees,” says Kristen Fowler, vice president at JMJ Phillips Executive Search. “It is management’s responsibility to synthesize the information that is being updated daily into digestible resources for the team so they do not get overwhelmed. Communication with benefits providers and their available resources for telehealth, testing, and well-being are important topics to be discussing with the team as they are top of mind.”
Companies could provide information on an ad hoc basis or through regular updates in the form of companywide e-mails or conference calls or one-on-one discussions. Whatever the format, the key is not to leave staff in the dark because they will almost certainly fill that void with speculation and anxiety.
Companies shifting to remote work are likely to see a spectrum of changes in productivity at both the individual and the organizational level. Some staff may thrive in the new environment, while others may struggle tremendously. It’s important for managers to be clear about expectations during this transition.
“Education around expectations is particularly important during COVID-19. Given many employees are caregivers, they likely will not be able to produce the same work product they did before COVID-19,” says Emily Goodson, CEO of HR consulting firm CultureSmart. “This tension can cause a lot of guilt and mental stress. Employers can assist by educating employees on expectations. They should also train their people managers to proactively ask caregivers about productivity, priorities, and what needs to be adjusted.”
Watch for Signs of Increased Stress and Disengagement
While it can be particularly difficult to observe your staff’s mental health while they are working remotely, it’s especially important in the current societal and economic climate.
Managers should be encouraged to touch base regularly with staff, ideally on a daily basis. This doesn’t mean just via e-mail. It means real-time communication via either phone or, preferably, video chat in order to identify possible cues suggesting higher-than-normal levels of stress, frustration, anxiety, depression, or disengagement. These are subtle cues that are rarely clear via e-mail alone.
Remote Work Doesn’t Mean Nonstop Work
While remote work often carries the stigma, or concern, that employees will slack off when not being watched closely in an in-person office setting, the opposite can often be true, especially for those not accustomed to remote work.
Staff might quickly get into the habit of using the time they save on their daily commute to log in early and log off late and work right through times they would normally take a coffee or lunch break.
While managers might welcome the increased productivity, that pattern can’t last forever, and staff can very quickly burn out on a schedule like this. Managers need to encourage staff to take breaks throughout the day.
Keeping It Social
Similarly, many employees will quickly start to miss the regular social interaction that came with working in-person with colleagues in the office. While it’s impossible to perfectly simulate this in a remote setting, it can help for teams to start off virtual meetings by sharing what they did over the weekend, provide updates on their families and hobbies, and share how they’re coping with the new reality.
Many organizations even organize virtual coffee breaks or happy hours during which the agenda is purely social and not work-focused.
Employers and managers are struggling with many challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the logistics of remote work for large portions of their staff, disrupted supply chains, and a bleak economic outlook. But in the midst of all the challenges they are facing, they can’t lose sight of the potential mental health challenges their staffs are facing.
Failure to address those challenges could lead to high levels of employee burnout and turnover, as well as low morale. But companies that spend the time and effort to care for employees now are likely to see dividends in the form of greater employee engagement and loyalty in the long run.