Best practices for fostering well-being among both your employees and your leadership team during the pandemic
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the resulting emotional challenges employees confront escalates daily. Millions of employees and almost every employer are adjusting to previously unimaginable circumstances. Although it is hard to predict the long-term impact, there are clear indicators that the pandemic is adversely affecting mental health right now. As employees struggle to live within an ever-changing “normal,” the prevalence of mental wellness struggles mount.
What is happening to the American worker?
New research by the Society for Human Resource Management shows that up to 67% of U.S. employees “often” or “sometimes” experience symptoms of depression.
These symptoms include difficulty concentrating, feeling tired, feelings of failure or letting the family down. And for some, it’s worse, including rising hopelessness or little interest or pleasure in pursuing activities for over half of respondents. The boundary between work and home evaporated when more than 90% of U.S. workforce that could work remotely actually did—as such, employees now feel they are “on” all the time. Work life is no longer just completing the work and meeting deadlines. Employees have to manage child schooling, internet rationing and grocery washing. Once in-person school ended, that window to have a quiet space, where one can be productive and communicate effectively, disappeared. Now 41% of U.S. staff report feeling “burned out,” according to SHRM.
But it’s not happening to us … right?
The persistent gaze of COVID-19 has substantially increased the instances of employees experiencing mental health distress, according to the National Safety Council. Beyond fear for health, factors like food and housing security, child and family care instability, financial and employment viability have compounded the stress load. Add isolation to the mix and the typical middle-income employee is drinking a toxic stress cocktail every day. Extended social isolation increases the risk for the development of mental health issues and substance use disorders. These issues can exacerbate pre-existing conditions and increase the risk of depression, poor sleep quality, impaired cognitive functioning and suicidal thoughts or relapse. The isolation of social distancing during the pandemic has more employees feeling disconnected from their co-workers than ever—and for the last 3 years, connection with colleagues has been the No. 1 reason people who wanted to quit stayed in their jobs. Vulnerability to burnout has exploded.
It is important to overcome the false narrative that “It’s not happening at our credit union.” Please understand: It definitely is. Fortunately, with that clarity, we can begin to address what employers can do to combat these prolonged stress and mental health effects of COVID-19.
What do we do now?
First, decision-makers should recognize that they are also part of this population of affected workers. You and fellow leaders and managers are grappling with similar issues. An organization marches on its managers. At the end of the day, they are the ones pulling off miracles. What happens when they are at the end of their rope? Front-line staff have a little more room to unplug and get away when the workday is done. Managers can rarely do that. How do you keep yourself in a good healthy mindset as a leader when you yourself are feeling depressed?
A good start is to encourage managers to take vacation days. If your employee benefits include access to mental or behavioral health resources, remind everyone of those options. Consider expanding tuition reimbursement to help employees shift their finances to afford safe and healthy outdoor activities. While e-learning opportunities are a great option for professional development right now, it’s not a great answer to improving mental wellness. Get out of the chair. If you are a manager, wrap a day off around a weekend and go somewhere (while staying socially distant). Good news—there’s probably not a line to get in.
Second, empathize and stay connected with your workforce. Managers, now geographically (and emotionally) disconnected, have lost the access to monitor employees who feel overwhelmed. Those feelings surface as absenteeism, poor morale, low productivity or turnover. Are your employees being heard and helped? Do they have what they need to feel safe?
Leaving it up to employees to self-assess and self-manage their stress, which most workers are unlikely to do, produces very little results. A more effective approach calls for employers to proactively and continually take the pulse of their employees’ mental health and emotional well-being.
Take advantage of a free employee wellness survey that helps capture employees’ unexpressed concerns and anxieties. This quick survey helps managers understand the current state of their direct reports’ mental health and overall wellness. When employers have accurate data on employee stress levels, it is easier to pinpoint root causes. Then it is faster to prioritize how to support staff in ways that make a difference.
Happier employees increase productivity from 12-20%, as reported by FORTUNE.com. How many of your staff are happy right now? How many cannot be happy under these circumstances? As stress increases, performance and service quality plummets. Knowing the state of your team’s mental health is an absolute must in the management toolkit, especially as organizations reopen to full schedule and employees return to the workplace while other businesses and schools remain closed.
Finally, the leadership team at your credit union can foster the feeling of connectedness by authorizing and subsidizing new channels of team engagement. Facilitate cooking together via video calls, “my random talent” shows, workouts, even card games. Sitting down all day to telecommute has also had its toll on physical health. Set team competitions or mini challenges to encourage activity, exercise and interactions. Gamify to make it fun. Sponsor prizes or awards for employees who do the most pushups, bike the most miles or walk the most steps. Keeping it communal enhances belonging, generates excitement, and reinforces a sense of accomplishment.
Sakshi Gupta is a talent management associate at Retensa Employee Retention Strategies, New York. She discovers data-driven solutions to organizational issues that help leaders engage employees, to motivate and retain top talent.
Chason Hecht is one of the most recognized employee retention experts as founder and CEO of Retensa. With its predictive analytics software used by organizations in 54 countries and 15 languages, Retensa unlocks the insights hidden in workforce data, to address the social and financial impact of employee turnover.