Breaking Point: The Importance of Mental Health in the Workplace

January 27, 2021
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Author: Glenn Hunter

With supportive data seemingly everywhere about the pandemic weighing on employees and management alike, more organizations have been rethinking how they deal with mental health issues in the workplace.

During the pandemic, employees' wellbeing has become an important issue for employers.

Consider the Wikimedia Foundation, for example. When the coronavirus pandemic first hit, the foundation – a nonprofit that operates Wikipedia – moved quickly to reduce stress on its employees.

It switched to half-time work for all its hourly staff and contractors, waived counting sick days and gave employees a $600 stipend to offset the cost of working from home.

Katherine Maher, the CEO, told the employees, “We need you all to take care of yourself and your families so that you can be at your best when the need arises.”

Looking out for employees and their health – and especially their mental health – has become a necessary focus for organizations as COVID-19 continues to ravage the U.S. economy.

It’s little wonder why.

After living with the pandemic for more than 10 months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, employees these days may be:

  • Irritated, angry or in denial
  • Uncertain, nervous or anxious
  • Lacking in motivation
  • Tired, overwhelmed or burnt out
  • Sad or depressed.

They may also be concerned about being exposed to the virus at work or spreading it to others.

Related: 5 Tips to Strengthen Company Culture During Social Distancing

A study by FlexJobs, a telecommuting platform, showed that 5% of employed workers said their mental health was poor or very poor before the pandemic. But by last August, 18% said they were grappling with mental health issues.

At the same time, only 21% of employees in the study said they had satisfying conversations with their Human Resources departments about burnout solutions. Fifty-six percent said HR had not encouraged conversations about burnout at all.

Ways to Assist Struggling Employees

There are a number of ways management can help employees grappling with pandemic-caused anxiety, depression, burnout and trauma, according to the Harvard Business Review (HBR). They include:

1. Being honest with your employees about your own mental health during the pandemic. This will make them more comfortable talking to you about theirs. Authentic leadership builds trust and improves employee engagement.

2. Scheduling regular check-ins to listen and encourage questions. According to a study the HBR’s nonprofit arm conducted with Qualtrics and SAP, nearly 40% of employees said no one at their company had asked them if they were doing okay, and those respondents were 38% more likely to say their mental health had declined since the outbreak.

3. Staying flexible. Be realistic and generous. For instance, if childcare is an issue, offer customized solutions where possible, like allowing employees to set or flex their own hours. Model good behavior and tell them how you’re handling similar issues. Trust your team members and assume the best.

4. Overcommunicating. Be timely in informing them about organizational updates or changes, especially mental health resources. Clearly define modified work hours and any other changes that may impact their work performance. Make them aware of useful resources, even if it’s to share them again.

5. Investing in training. Consider mental health training for your organization’s leaders. That will help them talk with employees about any issues while eliminating possible stigmas and quashing common myths.

6. Conducting “pulse surveys” periodically to see how people are doing. The results can be used to put together new programs, enhancing employees’ health and well-being.

How employers deal with higher levels of stress on their employees is vital to keeping organizations productive. The problems are sometimes more acute for people working from home.

In an October 2020 Principal Financial Group survey cited on SHRM.com, 44% of business leaders said employee morale was dropping because of the isolation felt by employees who were working remotely. Many of those working from home have the additional burden of caring for children and helping their kids with schoolwork, stressing them out even more.

Thirty-eight percent of business leaders in the Principal Financial study said isolation was causing the use of alcohol, drugs and tobacco to rise, and 32% were planning to boost their companies’ mental health benefits for employees as a result of COVID-19.

Related: 6 Perks Candidates (and Employees) Seek in an Employer

The Importance of Open, Clear Communication

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“Make sure you’re communicating even more about the resources that are available,” Limeade senior research manager Reetu Sandhu told SHRM.com. “If not an (Employee Assistance Program), what else is available? This pandemic has highlighted that we’re human, and mental health will always be part of our reality. It’s not temporary. It’s not going to go away.”

During COVID-19, organizations ranging from airline carrier Emirates to the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks have stepped up their focus on mental health. Emirates offers group chats, guided meditation and personal counseling for stressed employees. The Mavs have a sport psychologist on staff. He reminds players who feel isolated off the court about available mental health resources and engages the players with uplifting texts.

Simple acts like that have taken on new meaning during the pandemic, Kara Hoogenstein with Principal Financial told SHRM.com. Said Hoogenstein, “Part of it is just people understanding that they’re appreciated and acknowledged.”

LaborIQ by ThinkWhy reports, forecasts and advises on employment conditions and the impact to jobs, industries and businesses across all U.S. cities.