While we might rejoice that COVID case numbers are down, researchers are just now beginning a decades-long program to find out what COVID’s long-term mental health effects will be.
There will be health outcomes to track, economic damages to mitigate and – perhaps most important of all – an across-the-board mental health strain that has significant impacts on how we work, and how productive our work will be.
Prior to the onset of the pandemic, well-being wasn’t being consistently measured by HR departments. It wasn’t a metric that many organizations paid close attention to or a topic that many leaders discussed.
React to changes
Two-plus years later, it’s a different story. We have seen massive declines in well-being measures during the pandemic, with the sharpest downturns coming just in the last year.
Many people have suffered through long isolation periods from co-workers. Some may count it a blessing, but for others it has been a real challenge and limited their support system. Pandemic fatigue, no matter how someone has been impacted by the virus, is real and hurts the whole person, at home and at work.
In the era of the pandemic, social unrest, the Great Resignation and world conflict, it’s no longer enough to only measure engagement and retention. Well-being in the workforce must be tracked today to avoid plunges in productivity and performance that could be caused by COVID long-term mental health effects.
It won’t be over the moment it ceases to be an immediate health threat. Tracking the overall well-being of the workforce going forward, and having a plan on what to do when we see a downturn, is the best way to blunt the long-term psychological effects of COVID.
Through work with numerous large organizations, we have identified many red flag groups that are at risk for suffering COVID long-term mental health effects.
- Middle managers often bear the greatest responsibility for achieving big-picture goals while also balancing the need to support the employees that depend on them. Pandemic working conditions made goals harder to reach and simultaneously increased the support needs of their team, leaving managers to bear the brunt of the added stress levels.
- Women in leadership and management positions in particular have seen big declines in their personal well-being over the past year as they struggle to balance caregiving obligations at home and work.
- Healthcare workers is another high-risk group. We are seeing the greatest declines in well-being and highest impact, raising the stakes for healthcare institutions around the country.
So what can HR managers – and any manager, for that matter – do to counter this long-term COVID stress? Here are a few steps to take today.
1. Get to the root cause
Start with the root causes of burnout and implement meaningful workplace changes that address them.
Researcher Christina Maslach has studied burnout for years. She identifies three key factors as the root causes of burnout:
- exhaustion: ongoing, overwhelming stress
- depersonalization: meaning negativity and cynicism are taking over, and
- indifference: referring to a sense of personal ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.
2. Listen, then act
Monitoring the workforce for signs of burnout is complex. But it can be done with a good listening program at both the group and individual levels.
Through employee surveys, our customers measure the overall level of engagement, sense of accomplishment and intent to stay. They also check on more actionable items related to well-being, stress and burnout.
We consistently find that the drivers of stress and burnout are related to workload, performance enablement, support and belonging.
Here are the most common thoughts we use to identify barriers to well-being that are actionable at the organization level.
- My workload is reasonable.
- I am able to balance my work and personal life.
- My manager supports my efforts to balance my work and personal life.
- There is usually sufficient staff in my department to handle the workload.
- I have the resources to do my job effectively.
- I have the systems and processes to do my job effectively.
- We make timely decisions.
- This organization cares about my health and well-being.
- I feel valued as an employee of the company.
- I can be myself at work.
3. Make one-on-ones part of culture
One-on-one interaction between managers and employees should be part of the culture. Building trust between two people – but especially between leader and direct report – takes time. Have ongoing communication and regular check-ins to ask about workload and well-being. They go a long way toward showing that an employee is valued and cared for.
Not all managers are well-equipped to have these conversations. That makes it critical for HR teams to provide resources, support and guidance to people leaders.
“Psychological safety” is employees’ beliefs they are supported in the workplace and can speak freely without worrying about repercussions. Building that kind of trust between employees and managers is crucial to identifying employees at risk for burnout and providing the support they need to cope with stress.
Add supportive policies
Put clear, supportive policies and development programs in place.
Here are some examples:
- Support people leaders in developing the skills they need to support the well-being of their teams. Reskilling managers who need to up their game on emotional intelligence and empathy will help keep talent from leaving because of high stress levels and lack of support.
- Put a new COVID-sensitive travel and/or return to office policy in place with maximum flexibility. Some people may be ready to hop on a plane or come back to the office when case numbers decline. Others may experience high stress just thinking about it. It’s better to give employees options rather than across-the-board requirements.
- Support managers with the clarity, communication and empowerment they need to effectively manage change, equip their teams and improve processes that lead to inefficiencies and frustrations.
Respond to challenges
HR departments will never be good substitutes for someone getting professional help for mental health challenges. But to combat pandemic fatigue (and post-COVID stress) we need more than band-aid solutions like gym memberships or yoga classes.
Companies need to do more than focus on the individual cases of stress. They can best help people by focusing on the work environment and addressing the underlying causes of stress. In most cases those causes are related to workload, inefficient processes, ineffective change management and lack of support. That’s an organizational challenge, not a psychological puzzle, and it’s a challenge most companies can do something about right now.