Caring for employees’ mental health during COVID-19

August 12, 2020


It is not an understatement to say that much of our adult lives have been spent in our offices working. But all that changed drastically with the COVID-19 outbreak and the organisational restructuring that soon followed. The work environment changed, without much warning, in a way that would have been difficult to imagine some years ago.

In the initial stages of the pandemic and the consequent lockdown that followed, two things happened simultaneously – one, managers and leaders paid a lot of attention to how team members were adjusting to the new reality and two, people seemed to respond to the novelty with a fair amount of enthusiasm. As the months progressed, organisations settled into a certain routine and perhaps began paying less attention to the mental health needs of the employees than they did in the initial stages. This is not much different from the general response to the pandemic as seen in Bangalore. When the cases in the city were just about 10, we saw everyone being extremely cautious, following all safety precautions and maintaining social distancing. Now, when the cases have spiked up, people are more nonchalant and disregardful of the safety rules.

A lot of us are experiencing mixed emotions during this pandemic. It is also uncertain if there will actually be a return to ‘normalcy’ or what would the ‘new normal’ look like. At the moment, many people are trying to make sense of the situation and are forced to live in isolation and lose their social connections. There is fear of contacting the virus and worry about their and family’s health, combined with the impending job and salary cuts. All this has put them at grave risk for stress, loneliness, burnout, isolation, and depression. In some parts of the country, with the easing of the lockdown, we now attempt to move from our living rooms to office spaces and are grappling with an evolving new normal. According to White Swan Foundation’s report ‘Back to Workplace’, as employees return to the workplaces, they might be experiencing anxiety around their own health and safety on returning to work and sharing space with many others, after weeks of working from home. In addition to some amount of social anxiety and concerns about the uncertain future, loss of motivation to work, and a questioning of their own priorities or life goals is something that many employees might face.

Even if we are able to right-size the businesses, put safety and hygiene mechanisms in place, give people protective gears or have them work from home, the toll on their mental health is going to be a concern for a long time. It has repercussions for the individuals, the team, organisations and economy at large. Even before the pandemic, WHO had stated that the lost productivity resulting from depression and anxiety, two of the most common mental disorders, is estimated to cost the global economy US $1 trillion each year.

These are unprecedented times and we all are navigating uncharted waters. At this point, organisations have to look beyond numbers and milestones, and focus on the people that make that organisation. The need of the hour is compassionate leadership where the leaders maintain morale and positivity amongst their team, and are supportive, understanding and approachable. Compassionate leadership is caring and building an organizational culture in which offering assistance in alleviating suffering is not only appropriate, but is the norm. In the current scenario, one thing seems to be emerging clearly – strategies adopted by businesses have to move beyond the usual focus areas. In particular, attention towards mental wellbeing of employees is crucial. A report from Mind Share Partners found that a large number of employees are afraid to talk about mental health with senior leaders which prevents them from seeking support or treatment. Perhaps, according to the Accenture survey, that is because only 14% of workers have ever heard senior leaders discuss the importance of mental health, and even fewer have heard a leader speak about being personally affected.

Organisations should aim to establish a culture that ultimately reduces stigma and empowers employees to talk about and access resources for support. A study conducted by Harvard Business Review shows that the most commonly desired workplace resources for mental health are a more open and accepting culture, training, and clearer information about where to go or who to ask for support. Leaders have an instrumental role in making this happen. As a leader, it is important to acknowledge employees’ worries and emotional state. We must take steps to vocally address the issue, share our own challenges and urge team members to seek help if they need.

Here are some steps you can keep in mind (sources: White Swan Foundation, Harvard Business Review) –

Open the door –

Step one is to simply ask, “How are you?” and “Are you okay?”. Opening the door to an honest conversation by asking if they are okay, will make them more comfortable, open and trusting of you.

Connect more –

If you don’t know your team well, take the time to connect with them and understand their personal circumstances. This will help you know what they’re dealing with. Connect more often with new employees on your team. They are likely to be anxious about their own role, and unsure of how this situation may affect their career trajectory. In the process, be open and vulnerable about your own worries and concerns. If you are unable to offer reassurance or don’t know what the future looks like, be transparent with your team about it. Regular, consistent communication from leaders is essential to ensure that people feel supported.

Demonstrate supportive listening –

For employees who do choose to talk about their mental health, leaders need to practice supportive listening. Don’t try to solve everything all at once, instead just listen, seek to genuinely understand, and ensure that people feel heard. With little empathy, leaders can open the conversation about mental health with their employees. Aditi Raghuram, an industrial psychologist, says that getting consistent feedback is an important way to understand how the employees are feeling and ensures that they feel heard. Important thing to remember, she adds, is that it is worse when you take feedback but don’t do anything about it, than it is to not take feedback at all; so a follow through of that feedback is equally important.

Be more accepting –

Be aware that due to the impact of the pandemic, the lockdown and all the stresses that have come with it, your team is unlikely to be at the peak of their productivity; this is to be expected. Communicate your appreciation to your staff members for doing the best they can in the circumstances, and acknowledge the risks they are taking by coming into the workplace. In all of this, be aware of your own mental health, take a pause and seek help when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Communicate available resources –

Make sure you are very clear about the mental health resources available to everyone at your company. Have a database with information available, about mental health-related resources, whether they’re facilitated by your organization, or otherwise. If you think one of your team members is experiencing distress, have a conversation with them and refer them to a mental health service if needed.

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