Losing loved ones to Covid-19, financial insecurity, stress at home: many Americans are reeling psychologically a year and a half after the country first went into lockdown.
Nearly half of Black adults (49%) and white adults (48%), and 43% of Hispanic adults say the coronavirus pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health. Furthermore, 31% of Black adults, 23% of white adults and 25% of Hispanic adults say it has had a “major impact,” according to Kaiser Family Foundation’s April 2021 Mental Health Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic: An Update.
“We have a lot of people experiencing anxiety and depression in this country. In fact, the number of people experiencing symptoms is at an all-time high,” said Darcy Gruttadaro, J.D., director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health at the American Psychiatric Association Foundation.
The issue is more severe the younger one is: Women and men 29 and younger are more stressed than any other age cohort, according to Kaiser. While emotional strain can affect workplace morale and productivity, strategies for addressing employees’ wellbeing do exist, Gruttadaro said.
Signs of emotional distress
Meet Sharon. She has been a high-performing member of her company’s sales team for three years. She usually shows up for work—in person or virtually—on time and ready to engage. Her star started to dim after she lost a friend to COVID-19 (24% of Americans have lost someone close to them, according to Kaiser). In recent weeks, she’s been coming to calls late and doesn’t turn on her camera. While usually friendly with her teammates, she’s caused conflict on a couple of occasions.
What is her manager to do?
Lead, Gruttadaro said.
The center’s L.E.A.D. framework provides actionable advice for addressing mental health issues at work. Its four pillars are Leadership, Effective communication, Adapt to change, and Double down on access to care.
Leading through change
“Leadership sets the culture of every organization,” said Gruttadaro, whose center also offers Notice. Talk. Act.® At Work, an e-learning training module to help decision-makers understand the impact of mental health on organizations and employees. “The more leadership mentions and normalizes mental health, the safer people will feel bringing their whole self to work.”
Managers with direct reports may be extra-burdened, for they are absorbing the effects of low morale and productivity on their teams.
“Managers need more support than anyone. They want to keep their high performers. We hear there will be a lot of movement in the workforce in the next six months.”
– Darcy Gruttadaro, J.D., director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health at the American Psychiatric Association Foundation
Effective communication is key
Storytelling is a wonderful way to build trust, Gruttadaro said. Leaders who have experienced grief, loss or stress, are encouraged to talk about it—your employees will value your candor. Frequent emails, intranet posts, open forums, and one-on-one conversations will complement your personal communications.
For example, Sharon may not feel comfortable discussing her grief and loss at work, but her manager, Joan, is noticing that she is not performing to her own high standards. Joan should emphasize her willingness to listen while reiterating her interest in Sharon’s success; reminding her about mental health benefits is the next step (more on that later). The more compassion Sharon receives, the more likely she is to willingly seek out the resources that will benefit her.
In addition, pulse surveys are another way to gauge employee mindsets; analyze the findings and act accordingly. Likewise, organizations should empower people to form employee resource groups on topics that matter to them—from diversity to care-giving to anxiety.
Adapt to change
“Flexibility is the key word today, because everyone’s circumstances are different,” Gruttadaro said. “There’s a huge concern that women are leaving the workforce in high numbers because of care-giver responsibilities. If you can reconfigure your team to make it better for all, you may not lose that highly qualified employee.”
There is opportunity for leaders to embrace changes that sprouted out of the remote-work scenario. In addition, employers may want to lighten employees’ schedules: Make Fridays Zoom-free, as several multinationals have done. Throughout the week, cap meetings at 45 minutes so that people can stand up and walk around before their next call.
Double down on access to care
Even before the pandemic, burn-out was an occupational phenomenon. In fact, in 2019 The World Health Organization added the condition to its international classification of diseases. Its three dimensions adversely affect the workplace: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, a cynical attitude or emotional distance, and reduced professional efficacy.
“We can only imagine what people are feeling now when they’re rolling out of bed and working from their home office, starting their day earlier and leaving later. You can see how burn-out is a large issue.”
– Darcy Gruttadaro
Organizations should frequently remind employees about access to mental health services in their employee benefit plans. Some are buying their teams subscriptions to meditation apps like Calm or Headspace. Still others are bringing in counselors to talk about the importance of exercise, sleep and good nutrition, especially during stressful periods.
Employers looking for more ideas might want to turn to the Academy to Innovate HR, which has published a list of nine corporate wellness trends, including: 24/7 access to therapists and doctors via telehealth services, the configuration of activity-based workspaces for employees coming back to the office, company-sponsored family events for employees with children, and financial coaching to learn how to manage budgets or pay down student debt.
“And while these trends are certainly being shaped by both last year’s and this year’s events, they are here to stay,” according to Neelie Verlinden the co-founder and editor-in-chief of AIHR Digital. “They clearly illustrate how intertwined mental, physical, financial, and family wellness are and, by extension, how important a holistic approach to employee wellbeing is.”