Supporting the Whole Employee Post-Pandemic

There’s no question that “work” has changed in the past year, with heightened challenges ranging from the isolation of remote working to compliance with new workplace safety standards. At this point, we can’t know the exact toll the COVID pandemic will have, but a recent survey shows that the issue is pervasive: 73% of workers expressed anxiety and concern about returning to work.
(https://envoy.com/blog/employee-concerns-about-returning-to-work/)

Employers have always played a pivotal role in recognizing emotional distress, destigmatizing mental illness in the workplace, and offering programs to support good mental health. This role will become even more vital during what experts anticipate will be a tsunami of emotional upheaval as we navigate the coming months and even, perhaps, years. They advocate for enhanced surveillance, treatment options, and attention to workplace culture (https://www.bmj.com/content/369/bmj.m1994).

The consequences of depression, stress, and anxiety in the pre-COVID workplace are well documented—and are likely to be exacerbated by current circumstances. Individually or together, they’re linked to 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, among other things. (Johnston, et al, 2019; SAMSHA, 2018; WHO, 2013 website)

As someone responsible for workplace wellness, the burning question is this: What can you do?

Traditional advice about tending to the emotional needs of employees certainly applies. The CDC recognizes that the workplace environment as the right place to promote good mental health, thanks to standing communication structures, centralized policies, existing social networks, access to on site workplace programs, opportunities to incentivize program participation, and the opportunity to track progress and measure effects of programs. In part, they suggest the following:

  • Offer free screenings for mental health.
  • Provide free or subsidized lifestyle coaching, counseling or self-help programs.
  • Offer health insurance with no or low costs for medication and counseling.
  • Distribute materials about warning signs of emotional distress and treatment options.
  • Host seminars and workshops that address depression, anxiety, and stress, focusing on mindfulness, stress reduction, etc.
  • Provide manager training to identify distress in employees.

(For the full list, visit https://www.cdc.gov/workplacehealthpromotion/tools-resources/workplace-health/mental-health/index.html)

The Impact of COVID On Our Mental Health

Mental health has been a pervasive concern, long before the pandemic. Consider these statistics:

However, a recent poll by the American Psychiatric Association highlights that the COVID pandemic has taken an additional toll on our collective psyche and mental health:

  • 43% of respondents said that the pandemic has had “serious impact on their mental health.” (https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2020/report-october)
  • Younger people and Hispanics/Latinos report more anxiety and distress than those over 65 years and Caucasians.
  • Despite the progress in overcoming COVID, nearly everyone reported lingering anxiety about COVID, especially in communities of color.

There also are leadership behaviors that cultivate a positive work culture and, in turn, foster good mental health (https://hbr.org/2015/12/proof-that-positive-work-cultures-are-more-productive). Encourage your organization’s leadership team to model these behaviors for the benefit of all:

  • Caring for, being interested in, and maintaining responsibility for colleagues as friends.
  • 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.
  • Treating one another with respect, gratitude, trust, and integrity.
Coworkers doing yoga outside

Finally, Forbes recently reported that people returning to the workplace may have elevated expectations and may look to an idealized (or better) version than what they left over year ago. Consider these strategies for supporting the emotional well-being of your employees as they adapt to the post-COVID workplace:

  • 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.
  • Plan for and maintain a safe workplace as guidance about unwinding COVID restrictions emerges. Juggling federal, state, and local mandates may be challenging, but re-assure your employees of your intention to meet evolving rules and keep them safe. Then, tell them again—to keep their emotions in check.
  • Seek employee buy-in by really listening to the concerns they may have, 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).
  • 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.”
  • Be proactive by planning wellness opportunities to support the mental health of your employees during this stressful time. These might include anything from nature time to workshops to yoga classes.
  • If you notice signs of distress in your employees, be sure you have a plan in place to support and, if needed, refer. You can expect an uptick in issues during this time.

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.