COVID-19 is taking a drastic toll around the world. It continues to take lives and cause serious physical health problems. But it’s also harming people’s mental wellbeing, which impacts their work 1. This pandemic strains your employees' wellbeing by disrupting work schedules, adding responsibilities and changing in-person interactions into virtual formats. This strain is bad for business, because it contributes to reduced productivity and workplace satisfaction, ultimately leading to increased employee turnover 2. But how can you be a champion for your employees’ wellbeing? What can you do to help your business in a time when so many businesses are struggling just to keep up?
Negative Impacts of COVID-19
COVID-19 has caused the deaths of over one million people worldwide 3, and more than a 5% decline in global Gross Domestic Product 4. Businesses continue to adapt to slow the spread of COVID-19, but this can slow business as well. It means serving fewer customers. It means spending ten minutes writing an email that could have been a two-minute conversation. It means lots of Zoom meetings and frustration: You have to click the microphone at the bottom that says "Unmute!"’ As businesses struggle, employees are left feeling anxious about losing their jobs, and, if that does happen, their ability to find a new job.
Some employees are "high-risk" and must be extra vigilant about social distancing and disinfecting. Schools close, leaving employees scrambling to find childcare or trying to work from home while caring for and homeschooling their kids. Employees are feeling isolated from their elderly parents or grandparents. In the most extreme circumstances, employees are coping with the loss of loved ones who have died from COVID-19. These experiences leave employees feeling frazzled and disorganized, or guilty about not fulfilling one or more roles sufficiently. It is not surprising that stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness and despair have become increasingly common 5. Simply put: this pandemic is making employees burn out.
The Importance of Your Employees’ Wellbeing
Caring about your employees' wellbeing is the right thing to do. But as an added bonus, it's good for business! Results from a recent, pre-COVID-19 survey of a diverse group of 1,500 working U.S. adults showed that one-fifth of all employees had quit a job due to mental health reasons, and that nearly two-thirds reported that their wellbeing affects their work performance 6. Ignoring employees' wellbeing has always been a missed opportunity. But it is especially important now, during the era of COVID-19, when employee burnout may be pushing them to the breaking point.
Unfortunately, even business leaders who understand the importance of their employees’ mental health may feel clueless as to what they can actually do about it, especially during this pandemic. Some guidance is presented by the ‘humanitarian coordination forum’ known as the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC). The IASC is aimed at promoting welfare and humanitarian assistance to people most in need of it. In their Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings, the IASC identifies several ‘core principles’ that should underly humanitarian relief efforts 7. While most of these principles are not new, it is worthwhile to re-examine them in relation to potential business applications in this time.
And, you can readily apply some of these principles in anything that you do to boost employee wellbeing during the pandemic. For example, be sure that any mental health benefits and resources are available and accessible to all employees (Equity). Offering on-site counseling sounds great, but how are employees who are working remotely able to take advantage of this opportunity? Also, despite your best intentions, sometimes new policies or the latest fad in mental health treatment may not have solid scientific support; these may cause more harm than good (Nonmaleficence). The best interventions, policies and practices often are created with input from the employees themselves (Participation), rely on the businesses’ and employees’ existing strengths, resources and relationships (Strengths-Based), and acknowledge that ‘one size fits all’ is a bad model for helping people (Individualized Support).
Specific Recommendations for Supporting Employees’ Psychological Wellbeing
The core principles from the IASC Guidelines are intentionally general. They don’t tell you specifically what to do to promote your employees’ wellbeing. More specific ideas can be drawn from the IASC’s Basic Psychosocial Skills Guide for COVID-19 Responders 8, along with some other established mental-health-promoting strategies. In line with the principle of Individualized Support, you can offer a range of support services to employees based on their specific needs. It is perhaps most helpful to classify supports into two groups: basic and specialized.
Basic supports are helpful for all employees, even those who are experiencing little or no emotional distress. For instance, you could offer your employees additional time off. A ‘mental health day,’ or even a ‘mental health morning,’ may be a worthwhile investment to prevent employee burnout. Another option would be to offer employees a Mental Health Lunch Hour, or ‘Lunch and Learn.’ For this lunch, you could provide an added 50% onto their lunch time, during which they can receive education or skills-training sessions for improving their wellbeing. Helpful topics may include mindfulness, meditation and progressive muscle relaxation. If in-person sessions are feasible, this can also be a great chance for employees to connect with and support each other. However, these types of sessions can also be effective via webinars or live small-group video conferences (e.g., Zoom). In addition, you can arrange for employees to be sent a daily or weekly "challenge" designed to support their mental wellbeing. This might be an email in which they are asked ‘What is one thing that you can control or accomplish today that will improve your wellbeing?’ Relying on the Strengths-Based approach, employees could be asked to identify one positive self-care behavior they’ve recently done. This can help them focus on their positive qualities and accomplishments, which builds a sense of self-efficacy. From there, employees can be challenged to identify another self-care behavior to begin or improve, along with a ‘support person’ in their life who may help them with their self-care.
Specialized supports are more intensive and are intended for employees who are experiencing moderate to severe levels of psychological distress. Many employees have preexisting psychological and/or substance abuse disorders that they are able to manage under typical circumstances. However, in the face of COVID-19-induced distress, these employees can become completely overwhelmed. Specialized supports for employees with these more severe problems should be provided by mental healthcare professionals. Businesses can help by offering access to free or reduced-cost mental healthcare services to employees who need this level of support. Many large businesses in the US, in fact, already offer these kinds of services through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP).
Simply having these services for employees is insufficient, though – employees need to be directly connected to these services. Imagine an employee who has lost a loved one to COVID-19, or feels isolated due to social distancing, and as a result is in the depths of a depressive episode. Are they likely to take the initiative to call Human Resources or search their company’s website for information about an EAP? Are they likely to approach you to ask what services might be available to them? Probably not. Putting the onus on the employees to seek out the services they need likely means these services will be greatly underutilized. You can help these employees by ensuring they receive regular reminders of your EAP (e.g., via email once every other week). And instead of waiting for employees who are burned out to come to you, you can have an informal ‘check-in’ to ask them how they are doing, and offer to connect them to EAP services. You can even encourage them to make a phone call or online contact to initiate services before they leave your office.
Some of these recommendations may seem impossible for you to put into practice. For many businesses, it may in fact not be possible to take these steps. It is important for you to understand that you are not in control of your employees’ wellbeing. As such, it is helpful to adopt a ‘just do what you can’ approach – some support of employees’ wellbeing is clearly better than no support.
Even if you can’t provide any of the above-mentioned supports to your employees, one goal you can strive for is to promote a positive communication climate. As conveyed in the IASC Psychosocial Skills Guide, when people are distressed, ‘everyday interactions can be used to support others and can transform the wellbeing of those around you.’ When talking with employees who are burning out, you can use basic supportive communication skills like talking with a soothing, reassuring tone, having appropriate eye contact, making your body posture open and relaxed, giving your undivided attention and not interrupting or changing the topic. You can demonstrate empathy by acknowledging their feelings and difficult experiences, asking for clarification and summarizing what you heard your employee say. This may all seem rather obvious, but most people struggle to engage with their employees in these ways, especially when an employee seems distressed. It can be a real challenge, and it takes lots of practice to do naturally and consistently.
Remembering to Engage in Your Own Self-Care
Although it may be natural for you to focus on what you can do for your employees’ wellbeing, it may not be as obvious or natural for you to turn that same focus inward. As mental healthcare professionals know, taking care of yourself is a prerequisite for taking care of others. And as the IASC Psychosocial Skills Guide states, your own wellbeing ‘is not a luxury, it is a responsibility.’ You experience the same stressors from COVID-19 as your employees. You may be experiencing burnout from working longer hours and trying to ‘do more with less’ to offset COVID-19-related business losses. It is imperative for you to be aware of your own stress-related symptoms, because stress can affect us all in different ways. Are you having physical symptoms like sleep problems, excessive or diminished appetite, headaches or muscle tension? Are you experiencing negative emotions, like irritability, anxiety or despair? Are you doing things that are problematic, like lashing out at your employees or significant others, using drugs or alcohol for coping, binge eating or engaging in risky or reckless behavior? These problematic experiences can be easy to recognize early in other people, but not in ourselves…until it’s too late.
Despite how COVID-19 has limited our daily activities, there are many things you and your employees can do to improve wellbeing. Treat your body right by eating a healthy diet, exercising in your home or being active out in nature and getting adequate sleep. Also, avoid harmful things for your body, such as too much alcohol or common stimulants like nicotine and caffeine. These can worsen symptoms of burnout such as depression and anxiety. Make time to have fun and do fulfilling things. If you’re stuck at home in quarantine, what better time to tackle a home project you’ve been putting off, or work on that hobby you’ve been neglecting?
You should also make a point to connect with other people. COVID-19 has a lot of us feeling isolated, so take the time to talk with your significant others. Talk about your feelings. If you’re feeling burned out, tell people. Not just your significant others, but also your superiors or peers at work. If you’re overworked and feel like you’re at your breaking point, accept help from other people when it’s offered. Even better – ask for help! And take a few minutes every day while at work to engage in calming and ‘centering’ activities, like reflecting on things you’re thankful for, deep breathing, stretching, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, mindfulness, etc. Not sure how to get started with these activities? There are a number of apps you might find helpful, such as Calm, Headspace or Stop, Breathe & Think. Ask friends, family and colleagues what they do for their own wellbeing, and share with others what works for you.
COVID-19 and Beyond
When you’re already burned out and feeling constantly on-the-go at work, taking steps for your wellbeing and the wellbeing of your employees may feel daunting. Start by picking just one thing you can do for yourself, and one thing you can do for your employees. Implementing these practices almost certainly will be imperfect. But perseverance in the face of COVID-19 challenges is an important factor for your business, and for you, to successfully navigate through the COVID-19 landscape. It is this quality of resilience that permits you, your employees and your entire business to not only ‘bounce back’ but to ‘bounce forward.’
Jon T. Mandracchia, PhD
Jon Mandracchia earned his PhD in Counseling Psychology from Texas Tech University and is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Missouri Western State University in Saint Joseph, Missouri. His research focuses on suicide, particularly among offender populations, as well as maladaptive thinking patterns that perpetuate criminal behavior (i.e., criminogenic thinking).
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