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The COVID-19 pandemic, which has left many of us working at home for months, has intensified the impact of work on our personal lives. While such changes have undoubtedly given many employees an opportunity to prove their efficiency, their well-being has also suffered. The financial crisis, widespread layoffs, and steep unemployment have increased pressure on those fortunate enough to still have jobs. Meanwhile, under remote work conditions, opportunities to build and maintain positive and supportive relationships with colleagues — which can boost job satisfaction — have dwindled. Boundaries between work and life have eroded for those who work from home, leading many to feel like they live at work because of pandemic-limited opportunities for entertainment and socializing.1 And societally, we’ve all been touched by crippling uncertainty and ongoing worries for ourselves and our loved ones.
These precarious conditions have triggered an epidemic of burnout and left many employees struggling to cope. This isn’t a surprising development; research conducted by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence found that 2020 was the most stressful year people have ever experienced in their working lives. Seventy-eight percent of the workers surveyed said that the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health, 76% indicated that companies should be doing more to protect workers’ mental health, and a staggering 85% said that newfound work-related stress is affecting their home lives.
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Even in ordinary, nonpandemic times, mental health issues are often difficult to detect before they outwardly affect employees’ ability to work. In part, this is due to fears of social stigma; people may be reluctant to come forward due to concerns over how coworkers will perceive them.2 But the challenges of self-assessment are also a major factor. Some employees struggle to recognize or accept their own mental health issues: “Everyone else seems to be coping through the pandemic, so why is it such a struggle for me?”
Companies need to proactively identify their overarching cultural challenges and holistically design support systems that address the specific forms of stress and anxiety their employees face. It may seem harder to build a culture of care in a virtual setting than in a shared workspace, but as a leader, you can still make a real impact remotely. One effective approach is to act as a sieve, filtering out and addressing manageable, upstream problems as much as possible before they become critical for individual employees. (See “A Sieve Model of Addressing Mental Health Issues in the Workplace.”)
This approach requires preempting work stressors by addressing the conditions that generate mental health issues in the first place, detecting emerging issues, and remedying identified issues.
Preempting Work Stressors
With the rise of remote work and the erosion of work-life boundaries, employees need to disconnect. At the preemptive stage, a focus on the organizational culture is essential to promote self-care values and healthy work-life boundaries. Leaders can proactively address these issues in a number of ways.
Model wellness and balance for your team. As a leader, it’s not enough to say that you prioritize wellness and announce a few virtual wellness events or services via your intranet or in internal communications. Each manager, supervisor, and team lead has a responsibility to demonstrate the company’s commitment to well-being. Clearly valuing your own well-being shows your team that you value theirs, too. In practice, this may mean actually using your vacation days, being open about the block on your calendar reserved for a therapy appointment, or just recommending a great personal development book you’ve read. When it comes to modeling wellness for your team, it’s all about openness and action.
Monitor workloads. This is an obvious concern if your organization has shrunk its workforce, but a more subtle — in fact, invisible — element is the workload your employees face at home. Do they have child care or elder care responsibilities? Are they serving as remote-learning classroom assistants? Do they share a living space with interrupting roommates or relatives? Under these circumstances, some employees may not be able to handle their regular workloads, which shifts the weight to colleagues. But we all need balance. While monitoring productivity is likely to be intrusive and actually increases employees’ pressures to perform, monitoring workloads — including regularly assessing job design and possibly reallocating tasks among your employees — takes a bigger-picture perspective.
Introduce a bookend to each working day. The lack of a clear beginning and end to the workday blurs the distinction between home and work life, leading to a muddle of demands and distractions. Some companies are promoting virtual commutes to mark the boundaries of the workday without the hassle of traffic or travel. Casual morning conversations over coffee or occasional end-of-day happy hours offer sociable ways to connect with colleagues. Such a window of time can offer employees an opportunity to reflect, refresh, gain a bigger-picture perspective, and set goals.
Revisit your company’s values. If we learned anything as a society in 2020, it’s that we need to take a hard look at the way we live, work, and play. It’s essential to reevaluate how you, as a leader, show up for your employees — not just your clients. Thoroughly examine your company values and see if they still hold up in practice after a year of remote work. If practice and values align, consider how you’ll incorporate these values in your future in-person, fully remote, or hybrid workplace — and if there’s a gap between values and practice, figure out what needs to shift to bring them into alignment.
For example, many companies that considered themselves progressive in supporting employees with caregiving responsibilities — child care or elder care, or care for relatives with illnesses or disabilities — realized during the pandemic that there were significant gaps in their understanding of those employees’ challenges in balancing work and life. A recent study in the U.K. showed a growing demand for elder care assistance among those aged 35 to 45. Many organizations have come to realize the stressors facing this “sandwich generation” caring for both children and elders and will need to reassess how they help their employees get needed support to alleviate a major source of stress.
Leaders must leverage this unique moment to reflect on what kind of company they want to lead.
Detecting Emerging Issues
A culture of self-acceptance can help support individual employees suffering from mental health issues to overcome their reticence about disclosing their situation. Similarly, creating a culture of awareness can encourage employees to support colleagues who might be struggling.
Collect data. Anonymous pulse surveys are useful tools for detecting brewing mental health issues before they emerge. Survey responses will help assess the organization’s overall mental health climate and may help to identify areas — specific functions or teams, for example — that require particular support. While pulse surveys will give you a big-picture view of how members of your organization are functioning, you’ll also need to more deliberately seek out information from individuals.
Actively listen to your employees. It’s simple to host a virtual wellness event or offer employees a well-being stipend. What’s less straightforward is asking your team what they need, genuinely listening, and responding accordingly. In a world that feels like it’s changing by the hour, it’s critical to get a sense of how your employees’ well-being is changing, too. Whether this takes the form of a staff survey or a supervisor’s honest conversation with team members, it’s time that leaders learn to actively listen to their employees — without first making assumptions about what they need — and showing them that their concerns have been heard.
Embed wellness in the employee review process. Whether your company does reviews annually, quarterly, or monthly, make wellness a part of the process. Take the opportunity to find out if your employees feel taken care of and ask for feedback on how the company is supporting your staff’s well-being. A review isn’t just a moment for managers to provide team members with individualized feedback; it’s a critical moment to hear from them whether they feel valued, heard, and cared for as members of the company. This conversation shows employees that the organization truly cares about them and offers the bonus of allowing the company to continually improve and elevate effective well-being benefits.
Remedying Identified Issues
Traditional in-person wellness programs have, of necessity, vanished from remote-only workplaces, despite their popularity. In 2019, more than three-quarters of workplaces ran such programs, to which 91% of participants reacted favorably. Along with these onsite programs, face-to-face interactions with colleagues and access to shared spaces like break rooms, gyms, and the watercooler have all been affected, and spending on office-based programs has plummeted.
Consequently, most organizations have turned to virtual tools to help remedy mental health issues. Many companies, such as Salesforce, have made meditation apps available to their employees. (Meditation app Headspace reported that interest from companies has increased by more than 500%.) Other organizations, including Zoom and Starbucks, have outsourced virtual therapy and counseling to emerging providers in that field, such as Lyra Health. Some companies have complemented their existing well-being programs with new digital options. Infosys, for example, has an established holistic support program focused on physical, emotional, social, and psychological well-being.
But because of the variance in the sources of stress across workplaces, more bespoke solutions are also needed. When offered generalist counseling services and outside providers, employees may feel that their individual experience is misunderstood. Peer support and group exchanges can be useful within a supportive organizational culture that alleviates the stigma of revealing one’s struggle.
Some organizations have on-staff mental health professionals to support team members. Army barracks in the U.K. have their own resident psychologists, and the U.S. Department of Defense employs more psychologists than any other employer in the country. Ideally, all organizations would have sufficient support from mental health professionals, but the current widespread shortage of mental health providers could cause a bottleneck.
While nothing can replace trained mental health support providers, when employees and managers have a better understanding of the issues, they can provide meaningful support. Training HR practitioners and employees about ways to deal with their own and others’ mental health is a good starting point. Mentoring programs can capitalize on such training and benefit both mentees’ and mentors’ mental health.3 Employees can also benefit from interacting with informal groups of colleagues they are comfortable with — an ideal context to share and normalize work-related worries.
Perhaps you personally are convinced of the significance of employee wellness, but you wonder how to persuade the rest of your leadership team to prioritize well-being during a global pandemic. The benefit of taking care of your employees will outweigh the cost of doing so. Recent research found that companies that adopted five of these wellness initiatives were able to improve employee loyalty by 79%, helping retain top talent while saving the time, money, and resources needed for new hires.4
As vaccinations become more available and some companies plan for their office returns, some people are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But even in the best-case scenario, the pandemic will have left countless employees with mental health scars. Those scars require swift action and a profound but strategic rethinking of mental health support and how to create the right structures at the organizational level — now and in the post-pandemic future.
1. B.A. Winstead, V.J. Derlega, M.J. Montgomery, et al., “The Quality of Friendships at Work and Job Satisfaction,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 12, no. 2 (May 1995): 199-215.
2. P. Bharadwaj, M.M. Pai, and A. Suziedelyte, “Mental Health Stigma,” Economics Letters 159 (October 2017): 57-60.
3. M.J. Gill, T.J. Roulet, and S.P. Kerridge, “Mentoring for Mental Health: A Mixed-Method Study of the Benefits of Formal Mentoring Programmes in the English Police Force,” Journal of Vocational Behavior 108 (October 2018): 201-213.
4. Research by Ben Laker and organizations such as WayUp and Oceanova have explored the efficacy of five wellness initiatives, including active listening, revisiting values, modeling wellness, addressing wellness in reviews, and introducing “bookends” to the workday.