The COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect people around the world. Several months on, normal life is still a long way off from being able to resume - and this is taking a mental health toll on many.
According to a recent study published in the Medical Journal of Australia, mental health problems have been twice as prevalent during the pandemic compared to non-pandemic circumstances. The United States Census Bureau found more than a third of Americans have displayed clinical signs of depression, anxiety or both since the beginning of the pandemic.
There are many different reasons for this. People are stressed by social distancing and isolation measures, homeschooling children, fear of the virus, concern for at-risk family members, concern about finances and the economy, as well as loss of independence and normal routine. In some instances COVID-19 related mental health issues could lead to increased substance abuse, family violence and self-harm.
How COVID-19 can affect workplace mental health
As an employer it is important to be aware that many of your employees could be affected by anxiety, fear, stress, depression and other mental health issues in the workplace as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
All of these issues put pressure on people, alongside the normal demands of their jobs. It can make people feel overwhelmed, lose concentration, work less productively, make poor decisions, make mistakes, breakdown or even burn out entirely.
In some cases the mental health issues may be new, and in others it could exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions.
Quite often mental health is considered to be taboo and people don’t feel comfortable talking about it with their colleagues or managers because of the stigma associated with it. Some companies may offer limited mental health resources for employees but fail to adequately communicate them, so there is limited uptake. In other instances, there is little to nothing offered in terms of a mental health policy at work - according to a Transamerica Center for Health Studies report, 17% of US employers said they didn’t offer any resources at all.
One silver lining to the pandemic, however, could be highlighting how many organizations have fallen short dealing with employee mental health in the past, and the opportunity now to put robust systems in place to deal with mental health.
>> Explore this article to learn how managers can help employees deal with COVID related stress.<<
The National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions has reported that around 53% of employers it surveyed are now looking at providing their employees with special emotional and mental health problems as a result of the pandemic.
The importance of improving mental health in the workplace
Studies have found that while poor mental health in the workplace has negative effects and cost burdens on employers, implementing policies and programs that seek to address and improve mental health have a good ROI.
A Deloitte study of Canadian employers found organizations that invest in workplace mental health programs are able to mitigate the rising costs of doing nothing about workplace mental health at all. These companies are seeing a reduction in disability claims, absenteeism and employee productivity.
In order to address mental health issues in your workplace, it’s important to be open-minded and start at the very beginning - including having employee representatives on a working group to assess what the issues may be within your organization and to build policies and deliver support systems that can deliver tangible benefits. This includes building a supportive workplace culture where people can feel encouraged to discuss mental health issues freely without fear of discrimination.
Good examples of employee mental health initiatives
There are many ways that employers can proactively take steps to help with their employees’ mental health. Examples include:
- Have a mental health policy - the foundation of all your actions in this space should be a mental health policy in the workplace that sets out clear goals and expectations.
- Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) - generally available through an outsourced provider and provide a suite of services including confidential counselling, advice, guidance materials, wellbeing courses and more.
- Health and wellbeing apps - an app that can be downloaded onto employees’ personal devices to give guidance on different aspects of health and emotional wellbeing at work.
- Online resources - a dedicated space on your company intranet where employees can easily access materials.
- Offering flexibility - a factor in mental health issues could be stresses associated with work/life balance, particularly around working from home for people with other responsibilities. Look at ways to compromise or tailor work solutions to suit these employees’ needs.
- Survey your staff - you don’t know exactly how many of your employees are experiencing negative mental health unless you ask them. Send regular pulse surveys to ask how employees are feeling and what the company can do to help.
- Train your leadership - managers within your company need to know when to see signs that someone’s mental health is suffering and to know what steps to take to discreetly and compassionately assist the employee.
- Appoint Mental Health First Aid Officers - just as you would train employees to act as a First Aid Officer or Fire Warden to assist their colleagues when needed, many organizations now have employees who act as Mental Health First Aid Officers after completing accredited training courses who are able to act as a “triage” to assist distressed colleagues to get the help they need.
In addition to implementing any of these programs, they need to be communicated well, and communicated regularly so that employees know how and when they can access them.
The role of leadership in addressing work stress and mental health
Leaders help to establish the culture within an organization and have a lot of influence over all other employees and layers of management.
In leading by example, the leadership in your organization can help to normalize and destigmatize talking about mental health issues and make other employees feel it is safe to do so as well.
Managers should also regularly check in on their employees - particularly in relation to their mental health at work during COVID-19 - as part of their duty of care.
Leadership also has an important role to play in advocating any mental health policies and programs in the workplace and encouraging employees who need to use them to do so.
Keeping employees safe both physically and mentally can be an ongoing challenge, but companies that do this well have loyal and productive staff who are engaged and make the organization succeed.