Addressing Employee Mental Health During Covid-19
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Addressing Employee Mental Health During Covid-19

With heightened uncertainty, technology fatigue, and fears of job stability, workers may be less productive than usual during the pandemic. Experts weigh in on what employers can do to support them.

Even before the pandemic, some businesses were looking at ways to better support their employees’ mental well-being. Now, as the pandemic drags on and escalates, there’s a renewed sense of urgency as companies face declining productivity and mounting employee stress. 

Some companies headquartered in the Twin Cities have taken some steps to mitigate this. Target Corp., for example, says it’s investing nearly $1 billion more this year in employee well-being, health, and safety than it did in 2019. This includes new sleep and anxiety resources, in addition to continuing to offer some free counseling sessions. Similarly, Best Buy offers up to eight free counseling sessions per year and unlimited phone support from clinicians. 

“At Best Buy, our employees are our most important asset. Their overarching well-being is a priority, which includes their mental health. That’s why we are committed to creating a strong culture of support surrounding mental health by encouraging open conversations, providing education, and offering access to resources,” the company said in a statement. 

In response to the pandemic, Best Buy created internal virtual series like its popularly attended “Think Blue” and “Candid Conversations,” both of which have periodically touched on topics related to mental health. 

Support Amidst Uncertainty 

These kinds of resources can help improve employees’ mental health and productivity, experts say. But it’s also important to let employees know they’re supported by their company, supervisors, and peers. That can go a long way in terms of promoting resiliency, according to Deniz Ones, industrial and organizational psychology professor at the University of Minnesota.

“The answers are not easy,” she said. “But flexibility and tolerance, that’s the best I can offer. … Things that have been done during world wars or other natural disasters do not necessarily carry over to this particular challenging situation.”

Businesses should think of providing resources and support not in only monetary and physical terms, she said, but also in providing true psychological support, which is associated with improved job performance and greater satisfaction. Key to offering that type of help is managing uncertainty.

“People tend to think about bad news as the stressor. Uncertainty is often as strong if not a stronger cause of stress that individuals experience. And so, helping individuals manage uncertainty around Covid-19 and the pandemic is perhaps something that organizations can do,” Ones said. 

Allowing employees to have a voice, clearly communicating with them, and treating them with respect are some of the ways businesses can address uncertainty. 

“Bad news is that some individuals will be laid off. Okay, it is a terrible message to say, we’re waiting to see what we will do. It is better to say we are aware that if X happens, then we will lay off 5 percent of our labor force. If this happens, then we will lay off 10 percent of our labor force,” she said. 

And having employees contribute to whatever decisions are being made will also help individuals feel more in control of the situation, psychologically. 

“So to keep employees happy and satisfied and productive, organizations do need to pay attention to internal justice, procedural justice, providing them with voice, and helping them manage uncertainty,” Ones said. 

Field experiments in industrial and organizational psychology show that it’s not primarily the salary cuts that bother people, but the way they’re carried out, Ones said. What matters to employees, she said, is if things were done fairly and if they had input. 

But layoffs present a different kind of challenge to companies and employees, she noted. 

“To get laid off actually has really quite severe consequences for the psychology of the individual,” Ones said. 

As many businesses focus on continuing operations and maintaining physical health, employees’ mental health may be neglected.

“Forcing everybody to work from home at this point is a mental health experiment in the making,” said Ones. As a result, she’s had to completely reframe her usual suggestions on how to support employees during Covid-19.

For instance, resources like workplace childcare facilities simply aren’t applicable in the current pandemic.

“We’re in tough times, because Covid-19 comes with its own challenges,” she said. 

In normal times, she said companies partner with organizations that assist those who’ve been laid off in transitioning out and finding a new job. 

“There are packages that exist, typically around layoffs. And I think all of those have gone by the wayside in the craziness of Covid-19 times,” Ones said. 

But the bigger problem plaguing companies right now is something that was already an issue pre-pandemic: “technostress.” Coined all the way back in the 1980s by a clinical psychologist, the term refers to one’s inability to deal with constant information communication technology in a healthy manner. 

“It turns out that continually connecting after hours has been really not good for the health of the workforce,” Ones said. 

And now with everyone working from their homes, there’s additional flexibility, but there’s also additional tele-pressure, she said. 

“It will hurt our productivity and job satisfaction and how committed we are to our employers,” she said, extrapolating the larger literature to the pandemic working situation. 

“This connectivity comes with the price of interruptions, and interruptions are really not a good thing for productivity. They reduce productivity and not just overall productivity, whatever the product that the individual is working on,” Ones said. “It turns out that it actually lowers its quality, because deep thinking does not occur when individuals are constantly being interrupted. So people just stay at their very shallow level of thinking. And without deep thinking, quality really suffers in cognitively complex work.” 

Consider all of the ways technology can interfere with a workflow, and add in interruptions from roommates, children, and yes, even pets. Then, also take into account that women are interrupted more, Ones said, especially when they’re at home.

“So the productivity impact of Covid-19 from staying at home and working from home is going to be a lot greater for women. It will hurt women and women’s careers a lot more than it will hurt men’s careers,” Ones said. 

Bringing in External Resources

Beyond the psychological support a company can offer through fair practices, companies can partner with exterior organizations to provide education on wellness. 

Hennepin Healthcare’s Worksite Wellness program has pivoted to offering virtual resources, said Nanette Lomen, a registered nurse and clinical supervisor. The program’s goal is to keep employees healthy and to facilitate companies’ role in that. And while its focus is on things impacting physical health like vaccines and health screenings, the program also emphasizes lifestyle education. 

“They’re actually calling lifestyle the new blockbuster drug,” Lomen said. “And employees and employers are really catching on to that.”

Lomen leads a webinar on stress and the ways in which people can use their lifestyle to address it, she said. According to the American Psychological Association, one in five Americans never engages in stress reduction activities.

“Chronic stress definitely does affect our mental health. It affects our happiness, our sense of well-being. And there are actually different tests that show that it does cause depression and different things like that if you’re under chronic stress,” Lomen said. 

Instead of doing a huge change overnight, she emphasizes building momentum which leads to motivation. This is done by using tools to change bits and pieces over time. Guided meditation, sleep, breathing exercises, nutrition, and movement practices can all help generate that momentum. 

Beyond the technostress, burnout, and work-related stress, employees are likely experiencing isolation, grief, and fatigue, said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota.

“We do have people experiencing a lot of grief. So it could be that all those major life events are put on hold: weddings, funerals, concerts, graduations. I think we forget that can actually have an impact, of course, not only on teenagers and children but also adults,” Abderholden said.

The additional stress of working from home while tending to kids, or the isolation of working and living alone can be incredibly wearing on employees. 

“What we’re seeing is anxiety and depression. We’re seeing increased alcohol use. And we’re seeing great fatigue, from all of that,” she said. “And when we have those longer-term high-stress levels, it impacts our mental health, both in terms of anxiety, mood, and things like that, but also our physical health. … I think there’s a number of things that employers can do.”

Work-life harmony is key in situations where everything is all mushed together, like working from home. 

“It’s really important that people make a decision about when they’re on, and when they’re off and employers need to try to be flexible with that,” Abderholden said. 

This is especially vital for employees with children who aren’t able to independently amuse themselves for long periods of time. 

If a company offers Employee Assistance Program resources through its health plan, it should be frequently circulating information about those opportunities, she said. 

“Typically they’re not utilized a lot,” Abderholden said. “You need to be informing your employees of what they are and what they can access.” 

Sometimes the EAP includes working with someone on financials and a handful of free therapy visits, which may help employees if their partners lose their jobs or if they’re experiencing anxiety from the uncertainty and stress. 

Also, employers can make free or affordable resources available to employees. NAMI offers a health package, which helps employees live in a pandemic, she said. One of the nonprofit’s classes, Minding Your Mental Health, walks participants through different stressors and ways they can help their mental health. Walking, tending to sleep habits, practicing deep breathing, meditating, and limiting news intake are all simple steps that employers can encourage employees to engage in. 

“Also encouraging people to control what you can. Right now, there’s not a lot that we can control. We really need to think about today and not worry about a month from now,” Abderholden said. “What is it I can control? I can control wearing a mask. I can control washing my hands. I can control how much news I see. I can control my schedule for the day. So trying to keep some type of routine so there’s some normalcy. Doing those things can actually help you feel a little bit more in control and lessen your anxiety.”

She suggests companies organize ways to help employees take care of their mental health, such as group meditation sessions or chair yoga via video conferencing. 

To reduce work-related stress, Abderholden said employers should emphasize goal-oriented work and not hours or seat-time. Employers should also promote people taking time off. 

“One thing that I think is really important during this time is giving people grace and space. When we’re in a crisis like this and something that none of us have been through before. We need to give people grace and space. So, if someone’s not at their best, that could be me tomorrow. We want to be kind,” she said. “You really want to push them to kind of take that time off to rejuvenate, and to de-stress, and to really take care of themselves.”

She notes it doesn’t have to cost companies a lot of money to promote their employees’ mental health. It can be as easy and cheap as offering a workshop and raising awareness about what resources are already available to them and what resources are available within the community. 

“There are things that we can do to really help our employees. Yes, it’s harder right now, but there are things that again that you can do,” Abderholden said. “I think right now we actually need to connect more, not less with the people that we supervise with our team, because of the world that we’re in, because of the uncertainty and the struggle that everybody is feeling.”