The Internet and social media are full of memes, statuses, personal stories, and other commentary lamenting and marveling at the craziness of 2020. Many of these point out that we’re not even done with this chaotic year!
One of the biggest changes to normal life facing millions of Americans in 2020 is the sudden shift to remote work, as companies that can do so are avoiding large numbers of staff working on-site to slow the potential spread of COVID-19.
That same concern has led to many schools around the country avoiding in-person classes, as well, forcing some parents to juggle full-time work with part-time child supervision and teaching duties. Moreover, the economic impact of the pandemic has hit many families hard, with millions filing for unemployment.
Mental Health Challenges During These Trying Times
In this environment, mental health should be on everyone’s mind, and that includes HR professionals and managers, as well. Employees spend roughly half of their waking hours on the job, meaning mental health challenges can both stem from and negatively impact their jobs.
The concept of HR professionals and managers taking some level of responsibility or care for employees’ mental health is relatively new and was already a challenging mission for many. The fact that so much of the workforce is working remotely compounds that challenge tremendously.
We reached out to industry and mental health experts to get their take on the impact of the current environment on employee mental health, as well as potential tools and strategies companies and managers can use to be supportive in these difficult times.
Impact of Isolation
One of the biggest impacts of the pandemic for many people has been the isolation. Even those living in areas relatively untouched by the COVID-19 virus have faced precautionary restrictions on public gatherings and other forms of social interaction. Just being away from coworkers for so long can have a big impact on staff.
“When in quarantine or isolation for a long period of time—whether you’re working from home voluntarily or are involuntarily quarantined—people might start feeling down due to a lack of human interaction, or even worse, depressed,” says Ronni Zehavi, CEO of Hibob. “Humans thrive off of interaction, so experiencing negative emotions as a result of feeling lonely or confined to a small space is normal given the lack of community and connection present.”
Knowing that isolation is a big challenge, companies should look for ways to help their staff feel connected. “Working at home can prove challenging under the best of circumstances,” says Jeanne Hurlbert, PhD, President of Hurlbert Consulting. “Forming virtual work teams can help combat those challenges.”
“Teams can connect by phone or, ideally, through video conferencing, once or twice a day—and this can help to increase productivity. That allows them to provide instrumental support to each other,” Hurlbert adds. “And if your employees remain in the workplace, the same principles hold. The bonus? Our research shows that workers with more coworker connections enjoy higher job satisfaction.”
Information Is Key
One of the biggest factors leading to employee anxiety is fear of the unknown. Many people have a tendency to assume the worst when faced with uncertainty.
Moe Gelbart, PhD, Director of Practice Development at Community Psychiatry and founder of the Thelma McMillen Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment at Torrance Memorial Medical Center, suggests companies and managers can go a long way toward alleviating that anxiety by simply being open and transparent.
“Anxiety is reduced with facts, and with structure,” he says. “Keep employees informed of company status, changes that may be coming, etc.”
Develop and Stick to Routines
There’s no question that remote work is a change from getting up and going into the office every day. But developing and sticking to a regular routine is one way to create a sense of structure and normalcy, and it’s something managers should encourage. This not only helps with productivity but can also potentially stave off some of the anxiety that comes from so much change.
“When working from home, it’s important to stick to a routine as to not fall into a productivity rut,” says Zehavi. “Instead of staying in your pajamas all day, get dressed as if you were going into the office. Make a to-do list of the items you want to get done throughout the day to stay organized. Stay in constant communication with your co-workers and managers, even face-timing or calling them as necessary instead of Slacking or texting.”
Zehavi notes that, when on-site, staff may not even realize how much or how often they regularly speak with others during the day. When suddenly remote, though, that loss of constant connection can be trying. “Don’t be afraid to call or video chat with coworkers more than you normally would if you were in the office to make up for that lost interaction,” Zehavi suggests.
While managers and coworkers have an opportunity to identify potential mental health concerns among their colleagues and even provide some support, it’s important to note that they shouldn’t expect to, or be expected to, take the place of trained mental health professionals.
While they might be able to help alleviate mild anxiety or depression with some of the strategies noted in this feature, some employees may need to consult a professional, depending on the severity of their symptoms.
Even HR professionals themselves may struggle with mental and emotional health issues. It can be stressful being the source others turn to so frequently, but there are, of course, resources available to HR folks, as well.
“They can seek professional help, like seeing a psychiatrist or psychologists through telemedicine avenues, or look to more informal online forums and resources,” says Gelbart. “It is often very comforting to share with people in the same situation, i.e., other HR professionals, as they will have an understanding of the issues, and can share successful coping strategies as well.”
Yes, 2020 has truly been an unprecedented year, and the changes have been decidedly negative for many people. The stress of a global pandemic, job insecurity and logistical challenges, economic downturn, and increased childcare concerns, as well as increased isolation, have left millions of Americans struggling with anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges.
Employers, HR departments, and managers interact with their employees more than almost anyone else, and they have a unique ability, a practical motivation, and even a moral obligation to be aware of those challenges and offer the help, resources, and support they can.