Employee Mental Health is Critical During Covid
Stress has been a hurdle in every office and team I’ve ever known, and it leads to burnout and turnover. I’ve seen this manifest in people who were once highly motivated and effective; I’ve watched them become detached from their job, seen their effectiveness diminish, and then eventually leave the company. As a recruiter, I often hear from candidates that “it’s time for a change”.
This was before Covid.
The pandemic has created and intensified anxiety and uncertainty that chips away at everyone’s mental health. In addition to worrying about Covid, many have to navigate the uncharted territory and stress of working from home. This often includes increased workloads due to company staffing reductions, work balance issues that see people working longer hours, feelings of separation anxiety from not seeing colleagues and having reduced interactions, and the challenge of caring for children and other family members. This has led to feelings of isolation for some, and higher levels of stress.
Organizations have a challenge in determining how to navigate these times to support their employees. Clearly there’s a lot of work to be done. Here are some suggestions that could help.
Address Mental Health and Well-Being
Mental health has been overlooked in the workplace, and society generally. Part of this is the stigma of mental illness. Nobody wants to be seen as a problem to be fixed. In the workplace, employers don’t see this as their issue to address, it’s seen as a personal issue. Companies haven’t realized why their employee’s well-being should be important.
Covid and remote work has made this even more important. Managers who are aware of employee well-being and willing to listen to their team who are having a hard time can build trust with team members and avoid burnout. Empathy goes a long way towards encouraging employees to be open and share their stories. Leaders who are willing to speak to their own experiences and vulnerabilities will encourage others to open up. While this can be difficult, support and empathy will build a better work environment and a more productive team.
Burnout is often seen in the most productive employees. The ones who are going above and beyond are often the ones who are most overloaded and stressed out. People who are disengaged or unmotivated to begin with aren’t putting the extra pressure on themselves that can lead to burnout.
Some companies have responded to the pandemic by offering mental health programs, though many of them fall short of actually helping people. Often these programs consist of self-care, like encouraging people to breath or stretch and meditate, or they are counseling help lines employees can call. While these benefit some people, generally this is not enough. Many employees will shy from calling help lines thinking it will negatively impact their standing in the company. Others might not even realize they’re feeling additional stress.
Managers who talk regularly with their team about how they’re doing is a powerful tool in overcoming stress. This is a separate conversation from where they are meeting their productivity goals and deadlines. Effective communication is always an important management tool, and it’s even more important when everyone is working remotely. The best strategy is for one on one or small group conversations at least once a week.
When talking to your team, listen carefully and avoid the temptation to talk at them. Engage on how they’re doing with their families, on the limitations of socializing, and on how they’re coping. If your company has had any staffing reductions, or they have had a family member who was laid off, address it to try to relieve that stress. It can be liberating to talk about for all team members, and to know they’re not alone. A quick 15-minute zoom check in will often be enough. If there will be multiple people on a video chat keep the group limited to maybe 3 or 4 people so it doesn’t become overwhelming. When many are present, people may feel less comfortable sharing.
Give Employees a Break
Work balance has deteriorated during the pandemic. Working from home people are working longer; there’s concern that without face-to-face interaction their managers are unhappy with their performance. This leads them to work even longer hours, which leads to stress and burnout.
Some managers have addressed this by encouraging flexibility. Simply letting people know it’s OK to leave to pick up their kids from school, or to eat lunch with family members, or run a personal errand, will go a long way. People typically take breaks when they’re in an office, though when working from home they often feel that they have to be in front of their computer at all times. Monitoring software encourages this feeling. Having clearly defined expectations of what is to be accomplished goes a long way too.
If workloads are too heavy, it may be a good idea to hire a contractor to help if permanent headcount isn’t an option.
Encouraging employees to use their vacation time for mental health days works too. Having some downtime goes a long way to eliminating stress and burnout.
Making the effort to engage with your team on their emotional well-being will benefit the team, and organization. It takes time, though will reduce turn over and increase effectiveness, which is a good investment in your organization.