With the pandemic and related economic downturn, many Americans, experts report, are experiencing higher than normal levels of stress, anxiety and worry about the future. And these stresses, without doubt, are affecting employers and employees at home and in the workplace.
Consider, for example, a mom of two young children who is called to return to her worksite without having needed child care or in-class school in place. If her supervisors aren’t able to accommodate her needs, she may be asked to accept reduced work hours or possibly be let go due to constrained business markets.
Or consider an employee who lives alone and works remotely since last March and is struggling to remain energetic, productive and well-integrated with the team.
The fact is there are many new life-changing factors at work now that are neither easy to deal with nor to resolve on a short-term basis. One key consequence of this era’s uncertainties, to be sure, is an increase in mental health issues and problems.
Even before this current period of instability, many Americans already suffered various levels of mental illness, such as depression, anxiety and related behavioral and emotional disorders. According to recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, one out of every five U.S. adults (or roughly 44.7 million people) have experienced mental illness, while 71% of adults had at least one regular symptom of stress, such as headaches or having feelings of being overwhelmed or anxious.
It may not be an overreach to suggest the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on everyone’s mental health to some degree. All told, there are some steps employers and their managers can take to help their employees be resilient, maintain productivity and, most importantly, maintain a healthy balance in their work and personal lives. Here are a few steps to consider:
Focus on making authentic connections with co-workers. It may be time to reconsider holding the “forced fun” virtual activities that often leave some people still feeling unconnected with their colleagues.
Managers, instead, can consider proactively creating digital spaces, such as small-group virtual chat programs via video conferencing apps, to help work friendships grow. This step can go a long way to help ward off feelings of loneliness and its negative effects on mental health.
Expand access to mental health services: Consider offering employees paid time off, health insurance benefits or flexible schedules to enable them to access mental health care when they need it. With uncertain work schedules and sometimes a lack of specific health benefits coverage, accessing and benefiting from needed mental health services are difficult for many employees.
Utilize Employee Assistance Programs: EAPs can help employees in need with real-time mental health, grief or trauma counseling. The effects of dealing with the many aspects of the pandemic period suggest an increased need for programs and support in workplaces and in our communities to address mental health issues.
Make reasonable accommodations when possible: In the event an employee informs their manager that they may be suffering from anxiety, depression or another mental health condition, this person can request an accommodation be made for their unique needs. In this case, managers should work closely with this employee to know what benefits they may be entitled to under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Give employees more time each day to decompress: Encourage your employees – either working in the office, out in the field or at their home office – to step away from their work for periods throughout the day. Let them know they should go outside for a walk or for fresh air to ease up on their stress before resuming work.
Executives and managers can be proactive in encouraging their teams to take these breaks so they stay engaged and productive for the rest of the day.
“People bring the most to work when they feel connected to the mission and the people around them,” writes Kathleen Schulz with the consulting firm, Gallagher, in a recent report, “Returning to the Workplace in a New Reality.”
“A company that fosters social connections as a strategic priority and values the positive emotions around compassion, joy and caring is more likely to experience greater productivity and engagement, while protecting against illness, loneliness and burnout,” she adds.
Ultimately, as a strategic priority, this is an important time for employers to consider new ways to help their employees optimize their mental and physical health.
Kelly A. Mitchell is principal of impactHR, LLC, a woman-owned business that provides human resources and business solutions for companies and organizations.