Emotional Distress in the Workplace

Workers will, undoubtedly, carry their emotional distress into the workplace. If left unattended, the consequences are significant: increased substance use, poor attention and concentration (leading to errors and safety concerns), reduced job performance, increased absenteeism, higher turnover, lower productivity, lower profitability, lower job growth, and increased costs for psychological and pharmacological treatments.

This situation may be further complicated by the return of remote workers to the office which is happening now in large numbers (read full article here). Despite this move to return workers to the office, Gallup recently published results of a poll that showed that over 60% of employees preferred fully remote work or a hybrid model and that fewer than 6% wanted to return full time to the office (read full article here). Workers who were interviewed about returning to the office said they felt “punished” and that the push to return to the workplace seemed arbitrary and unnecessary. This likely will create added tension in the workplace and may result in emotional exhaustion (read full article here).

As a leader responsible for workplace wellness, the burning question is this: What can you do to support emotional well-being of all your employees and ease the transition for both returning remote workers and those that have been “holding down the fort”?

Traditional advice about tending to the emotional needs of employees certainly applies. The workplace environment is the right place to promote good mental health, thanks to standing communication structures, centralized policies, existing social networks, access to workplace programs, opportunities to incentivize program participation, and the opportunity to track progress and measure effects of programs (read full story here). Suggestions to promote good mental health include:

  • Acknowledge as an organization that the mental health of employees is a priority.
  • Offer free screenings for mental health and assure access to programs that support good mental health when needed:
    • Provide a robust, accessible employee assistance program.
    • Host seminars and workshops that address depression, anxiety, and stress, focusing on mindfulness, stress reduction, etc.
    • Provide free or subsidized lifestyle coaching, counseling or self-help programs.
    • Be proactive by planning wellness opportunities to support the mental health of your employees. These might include anything from nature time to yoga classes to wellness challenges.
  • Develop methods to keep mental health front and center in your workplace:
    • Educational programs, posters and pamphlets about warning signs of emotional distress and available treatment options.
  • Assure time for employees to take advantage of programs and supports during work time.
  • Subsidize apps that address emotional well-being and offer on line therapy (there are many available for stress, depression and anxiety).

The Impact of COVID On Our Mental Health

Mental health has been a pervasive concern for years, but the pandemic brought it into sharp focus. Consider these early pandemic statistics:

  • In 2020, 21% of all U.S. adults reported any form of mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder (defined as “any mental illness”), according to NIH statistics. (read full story here).

Compare this to more recent information about the collective state of our mental health attributed largely to the consequences (economic, social, health) of the pandemic:

  • 41.1% of adults reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depression (read full story here).
  • Over 50% of Americans report stress so significant that they feel unable to make plans for the future. This is disproportionally the case for young people and people of color (read full story here).
  • In June 2022, The World Health Organization warned of the significant impact the pandemic has wrought with clear evidence of “psychological distress and symptoms of depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress. And there have been worrying signs of more widespread suicidal thoughts and behaviors” (read full story here).
  • Assure a positive work culture:
    • Caring for, showing interested in, and maintaining positive relationships with colleagues.
    • Providing support for one another, including offering kindness and compassion when others are struggling.
    • Avoiding blame and forgiving mistakes.
    • Inspiring one another at work.
    • Emphasizing the meaningfulness of the work that is performed by every individual in the organization.
    • Treating one another with respect, gratitude, trust, and integrity.
  • Reward those who promote and maintain a positive work culture through recognition programs.
  • Integrate evidence of positive work behaviors into performance appraisals.
  • Provide manager training to identify distress in employees and offer strategies to manage conversations and access resources.
Coworkers doing yoga outside

The last point cannot be overstated. Leaders are a lynchpin to supporting employee mental health and wellbeing. Invest in training that will assure your front-line leaders are capable and competent in supporting your employee’s mental health needs and assure that all levels of leadership model and support this.

Finally, as you think about your remote workers returning to the office, consider these strategies for supporting their emotional well-being:

  • Plan communications and the transition carefully (read full story here). Some employers have had to back away from plans to return to office because of backlash (read full story here).
  • Give people as much control—as is possible and practical—over their schedule and workspace to make the transition back as stress-free and anxiety-free as possible.
  • If employees are given the choice of in-person, remote or hybrid, assure all employees that they will be regarded equally, avoiding what has been termed “proximity bias” (read full article here).
  • Seek employee buy-in by acknowledging their concerns including their own risk, ongoing caregiving responsibilities, financial strain, “missing” their remote habits, etc.
  • Remind workers of the sense of team, work connections, and mission/purpose of your organization to re-ignite their passion and sense of calm (yes, it is possible to do both).
    • Be sure to plan some “team” activities to re-ignite esprit de corps.
  • Keep anxiety at bay by giving people time to adapt to being back, or if some workers have been on site through-out the pandemic, to having a “full house” again.
  • State your expectations about the transition clearly and spend time developing a shared vision of what is “now” and what is “next”.

Understanding the post-COVID workplace and addressing mental health implications can make all the difference in employee wellbeing. And that can have a critical impact not only on their lives, but also the life of your organization.

To learn more about the employee wellness program from UR Medicine, request a demo or email us at urcew@urmc.rochester.edu.