As corporate leaders develop thoughtful strategies to resume business operations, bringing employees back to work in a manner that protects not only their physical, but also their mental health, should be considered part of a holistic business resumption framework.
Concern for the ongoing mental health and resilience of the workforce is accentuated by the knowledge that many employees are not operating at pre-lockdown levels of mental wellness.
In fact, a recent survey revealed that 41.6% of respondents reported a decline in mental health since the COVID-19 outbreak.
And while there is a clear cost associated with mental illness – the World Health Organization estimates untreated mental illness in the workplace carries a $1 trillion cost annually due to absenteeism, loss of productivity, and stress-related turnover – more important is the suffering it exacts on the corporation’s greatest asset: its people.
Depression and anxiety rising
Depression and anxiety are two common threats to the mental health of working-aged adults, with over 20% of the population experiencing related symptoms annually.
Given the stressors of our current environment, business leaders can anticipate a surge in these numbers as employees return to the workplace.
Anxiety exacerbated by the prolonged lockdown; uncertainty about the future; and the fear of exposure are all contributing to an increasingly vulnerable workforce.
Previously routine responsibilities – such as childcare, transportation, and access to necessary goods and services – are inducing stress during these unprecedented times.
In a recent survey, 66% of employees reported increased stress with the top five centering around contracting COVID-19, financial pressures, loneliness, isolation and fears about job security.
Employees returning to work may be struggling with ongoing issues related to grief at the recent loss or illness of a loved one; trauma as a result of domestic violence; or substance abuse and addiction-related issues exacerbated by the lockdown.
Many are experiencing symptoms associated with depression, such as feelings of sadness or hopelessness and diminished interest in pleasurable activities.
When left unaddressed, depression can lead to intense distress, functional impairment, and in severe cases, suicidality.
Unfortunately, stress can also exacerbate maladaptive personality traits in some employees, leading to personal grievances toward managers or coworkers and general disruptive behavior in the workplace.
The current crisis has many leaders exploring ways to care for the mental well-being of the workforce as a critical part of their business resumption planning.
As businesses develop their reopening plans, they should consider investing specific strategies to mitigate the potential negative impact of stressors on employees and promote overall mental health:
1. Deliver thoughtful communications
Communications to the workforce should be planned and delivered in a manner that is attentive to the mental wellness of the audience.
A clear message from leadership addressing employee mental health will serve to alleviate stress related to the transition from home to the office, and is the first step in creating a culture of mental wellness.
Much of the emotional discomfort experienced by the workforce will revolve around uncertainty. Uncertainty can contribute to stress and anxiety.
Stress and anxiety lead to difficulty concentrating, inattentiveness, irritability, and other disruptive behaviors. These are unprecedented times, during which there is much uncertainty.
Employers should work to combat this uncertainty through information sharing across a broad range of platforms, such as a centralized hotline and/or dedicated website and FAQ section, in addition to routine all-employee updates.
2. Be available and engaged
Individuals who are chronically stressed often feel as though no one cares about their well-being.
While communicating care and concern for the workforce by C-suite leaders is important, the greatest impact comes from supervisors reinforcing the value of their employees.
Concern for the employee’s individual circumstance should be demonstrated through active listening, which incorporates communication strategies intended to diffuse and de-escalate intense and emotional discussions.
While supervisors should offer solutions when practical, be careful to avoid jumping straight to problem-solving. The goal is to hear the employee’s concerns and provide reassurance regarding the return to work.
Upon resumption of business operations, it is imperative that supervisors are visible to the workforce and engage with individual employees on a routine basis.
Whether it is face-to-face with social distancing in place or a telephone call, checking in with employees routinely to demonstrate a genuine concern for their well-being and that of their family will foster a culture of mental wellness.
3. Make mental wellness part of the culture
The resumption of business operations warrants a review of employee wellness programs to address temporally relevant stressors.
This may include an expanded employee assistance program that includes services such as child and elder care, wellness programs (mindfulness or meditation), and free apps focusing on sleep, nutrition and exercise.
A review of EAP staffing levels should be considered during this time as employers may see a spike in activity.
This is also an optimal time to educate the workforce about mental health services allowed by the employer insurance provider.
Doing so serves an educational function as well as reinforcing a culture that encourages the workforce to seek professional help if needed.
Many mental health providers are offering virtual sessions that allow for unprecedented convenience and flexibility. These offerings may encourage some who would otherwise suffer in silence to seek help from a professional.
It is important to note that corporate leaders are also feeling increased stress during these unprecedented times.
Respondents to a COVID-related survey reported nearly identical rates of emotional distress, regardless of position.
Approximately 45% of line employees, 40% of supervisors and 40% of C-Suite executives reported a recent decrease in their mental health.
Leaders who acknowledge their own challenges send a powerful message to the workforce and increase the likelihood employees will utilize services such as EAP and report concerning behaviors in the workplace.
4. Train supervisors to recognize indicators of a mental health crisis
Employers must be able to recognize indicators of a mental health crisis in order to intervene.
Leaders are therefore encouraged to consider training for supervisors, and perhaps the entire workforce, on common signs of mental illness and related issues – as part of an overarching business resumption strategy.
A management team knowledgeable about mental illness is more likely to proactively respond to employees in crisis and foster an open dialogue about mental health in general.
Mental illness is frequently misunderstood and mistaken for poor performance.
Similarly, early indicators of workplace violence are often ignored or minimized.
As businesses resume operations and return to a new normal, employers who understand the signs of mental illness and emotional distress can lean in to respond, creating a culture that embraces mental wellness, employee assistance, and most importantly, workplace safety.
For more information
Join us for our on-demand 60-minute online training course, How to Build a Self-Motivated Remote Workforce. You’ll walk away with an actionable plan to successfully build a self-managed team that no longer relies on you for all the answers. You’ll learn strategic tools to help your supervisors and managers:
- Drive a seamless transition where your employees step up and you can shift your focus to other leadership responsibilities
- Provide the encouragement your team needs during times of transition and change while maintaining business continuity
- Lead and support a high-performing, self-managed team
Full details and registration information are available here.