The “Pandemic Wall” is real, and more of your employees hit it every day. How can leaders help?
Employees have worked nonstop, educated children, cared for loved ones, soaked in daily bad news and lived in near isolation for a year now. They aren’t just burned out. They’re nearly paralyzed.
What’s worse, it’s still difficult to see the end – even more difficult for employees to see themselves getting there.
And that’s the Pandemic Wall – a feeling of utter fatigue. It’s much like marathoners hitting the runner’s wall – when they feel like they can’t go on in the race.
The good news is most runners power through the wall and are rewarded with a finish. And employees can do it, too, with your help.
“We see large swaths of the workforce who are vulnerable. COVID has been a huge stressor for them,” says Terri Patterson, Principal at Control Risks’ crisis and security consulting practice.
This is who you’re dealing with now. SilverCloud researchers found:
- 90% of employees said they were more stressed because of COVID-19
- 30% of employees needed mental health treatment
- 32% of employees used sick days because of stress related to the pandemic, and
- 29% of employees said they were “not productive at all” or “less productive” during COVID-19.
“Nearly a year into the pandemic, employees feel like they are truly lacking the tools and resources to help them manage their feelings of stress and anxiety,” says Ken Cahill, CEO of SilverCloud Health.
Here’s how HR and front-line managers can help employees beat the Pandemic Wall.
Change the perception
You probably have resources in place to engage, help and motivate employees regardless of the challenges they’ve faced. Whether those are part of an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or your benefits package, employees need it as they knock on the Pandemic Wall.
“But we want to get rid of the stigma that might go with it,” Patterson says. “Encourage people to participate in your wellness options, which is positive. Get away from the notion of treatment, which can be negative.”
For instance, repackage options to the workforce as positive perks and benefits, such as opportunities to participate in mindfulness, social groups, virtual happy hours, cooking lessons, exercise, etc.
Get the word out
A third of employees in the SilverCloud study said they don’t have access to mental healthcare benefits. As an HR leader who works on benefits, you might be scratching your head, wondering why employees would say they don’t have access. Consider this: The top reasons employees don’t use their mental health benefits is because they aren’t aware of what’s included or they don’t know how to access it.
So some employees who say they don’t have mental health benefits to help get beyond the Pandemic Wall might actually have them. They just don’t know it.
Now’s the time to get the word out. Increase communication about your mental health benefits or EAPs and how to access them. If possible, make more mental health services accessible online and via text or chat. Most employees say they’d prefer that it over in-person services.
Share runner’s advice
For employees who haven’t hit the Pandemic Wall too hard, some runners’ tools might help:
- Distract yourself. Runners might think about their post-race festivities, math problems or prayers when they hit their wall. And you might help employees distract themselves by connecting them with Employee Resource Groups. Or give them reins to create and maintain groups – even if they only meet virtually – that interest them.
- Engage in positive self-talk. Runners echo accolades they’ve heard from others. Or they remind themselves of the triumphs – including already finishing 20 miles – they’ve had. Encourage your employees to surround themselves with compliments, rewards and endorsements they’ve received – and read through when they get down.
- Ask for help. A struggling runner might turn to another runner nearby and ask for help to keep the pace or just talk through the wall. Remind employees where they can go for help – from trusted managers to the mental health resources you offer.
- Put one foot in front of another. Runners do it literally. Employees might do it more philosophically. Keep a calendar. Jot down the next project, task, chore, etc. When one is done, mark it off, and move to the next. Sometimes, the feeling of accomplishment is enough to keep undue stress at bay or crash through the wall.
Help eliminate chronic uncertainty
People are stressed and fatigued by chronic uncertainty in their day-to-day lives and livelihood. They almost always feel like their and their families’ safety, health and future are in jeopardy.
“From the economy to personal finances … to conflict within the home, employees are stressed,” Patterson says. “They’re stressed about the vaccine, obtaining it for themselves or others in their care. That’s not to mention people have lost loved ones to COVID or otherwise, and never had the opportunity to say goodbye properly.”
You might not be able to do much to curb the uncertainty they face as vaccines roll out, mandates loosen and fears still exist. But you can probably establish more certainty in their professional lives.
Work with executives to create a regular cadence of messages about company progress. Encourage and train front-line managers to connect with employees at least once a week face-to-face (even if that’s video). Give and get updates so employees know where they stand and where they’re headed.
Stay the course
Even if employees push through the Pandemic Wall, mental health will likely remain an issue for some time. According to Mental Health Index: U.S. Worker Edition, the:
- risk of depression is 71% higher than before COVID-19
- risk of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is 33% higher than before COVID-19, and
- sustained attention is 27% worse than before COVID-19.
“The trauma of the last year will have long-lasting effects on the mental health of not only employees but their families,” said Garen Staglin, Chairman of One Mind at Work. “It is welcome news to see improvements at the start of the new year, but employers must remain focused on incorporating innovative mental health programs with visible leadership involvement to support the wellbeing of their workforce. One size does not fit all, especially when it comes to brain health.”
Bottom line: You can’t stop efforts to help employees avoid or smash through the Pandemic Wall just because there’s a vaccine, fewer mandates, more employees on-site or you’re blue in the face talking about benefits! HR leaders want to continually refine mental health benefits to meet employees’ changing needs.