As we near the second year of the global COVID health emergency, mental health issues are requiring more and more of management's attention in companies of all sizes, but especially in small- to mid-sized companies. Social distancing policies, isolation periods, mandatory lockdowns, and anxiety about catching the virus are enough to cause added stress for employees. If that weren't enough, the reality is that many are also dealing with the loss of productive time, reduced income, added family demands with children at home, job insecurity, and fear of the future. Together, it's enough to weigh heavily on the mental health of employees at all levels of a company.
Anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and PTSD sometimes require professional intervention, and companies should expect more claims for mental health benefits as we slowly emerge from the pandemic. But there are steps companies can take to reduce stress in the workplace to give workers a psychological safe place where they can be productive — and reduce insurance claims at the same time.
Employee Support for Those In Need.
Some of the factors that contribute to COVID anxiety are obvious. Workers who deal directly with the public are understandably more anxious about catching the disease. Workers who work PRN or on variable shifts wonder if they will continue to have work. Contract workers may not make their optimal contributions to their teams if they don't know how long they will have a job.
But other facts that contribute to COVID anxiety may not be as obvious. Multiple studies have found that younger workers, under 35, tend to need more psychological support than older workers, even though older workers are more likely to contract the disease.
"Nice" employees tend to have a hard time with the pandemic: Unusually empathetic workers may experience vicarious traumatization when coworkers and colleagues develop the disease. Substance abuse problems may emerge as workers attempt to self-medicate to deal with stress.
Caring about employees does not mean tolerating dysfunctional behavior. Even if a few beers over lunch makes an employee feel a lot more relaxed and agreeable, that doesn't mean that employee should be allowed to return to the welding shop, as an example.
And it's essential not to discriminate on the basis of age, sex, race, national origins, and so on while trying to do right by your employees. What you can do is to make sure that managers are on the lookout for behaviors that indicate a need for professional support before they become critical to continued health, safety, and productivity for everyone in the workplace.
As An Employer, What Can You Do?
Make use of simple, low-cost interventions that give all of your employees an opportunity to perform well during the pandemic. A lot of the best ideas for keeping your workforce mentally healthy during the pandemic seem like just common sense, but they bear repeating.
- Reinforce the need for appropriate PPE, hand washing and decontamination of surfaces. If it's obvious you are doing your best to prevent viral transmission, employees will have fewer worries about it.
- Introduce wellness programs that address self-care, stress reduction techniques, and so on. Options are available so that they don’t necessarily need to take any time away from work. Simple steps, like making sure employees have access to apps like Calm that offers immediate intervention when they need it. Encourage people to dialogue and share ideas. Invite them to offer feedback and pay attention to each other, noticing when someone may need assistance so that management is aware of issues when they first arise.
- Maintain a flexible work environment that allows parents to respond to childcare needs and school closures. Caretaker parents have a hard time juggling schedules during the pandemic. Simply helping workers balance job responsibilities and family responsibilities goes a long way toward reducing stress.
- Make sure workers receive adequate rest and breaks. Relaxed workers are more diligent about preventing disease transmission and less likely to make counterproductive mistakes on the job.
- Post contact information for hotlines and clinical psychologists for treatment. Make sure employees have discreet access to resources. Keep in mind that even strong employees can need help. Allow employees their space so they are not embarrassed by seeking psychological help.
- Consider allowing therapy animals in the office, music in the office, or appropriately distanced social times.
- Teach management to recognize signs of stress, depression and suicidal tendencies, and make sure managers model healthy behavior and connect with workers to maintain open discussion.
Even after vaccination becomes readily available, the COVID pandemic isn't going away overnight. Providing the resources your employees need to avoid debilitating psychological distress keeps them healthier and bolsters your bottom line.