As an HR professional, I’ve helped employers and employees through a variety of mental health situations including struggles with stress, anxiety, addiction, depression, and suicide. During the Covid-19 crisis, I’ve had a number of conversations with employees and leaders about increased mental health concerns as they adjust to working and managing remotely, try to work while entertaining and homeschooling kids, worry about safety and financial security, and settle into the reality of physically distancing from loved ones, sometimes within their own homes.
Even under normal circumstances, most employees don’t feel that mental health is taken seriously in their workplaces. As Harvard Business Review summarized a recent study on mental health challenges and stigma in the workplace, “less than half of respondents feel their mental health is prioritized at their company, and even fewer viewed their company leaders as advocates.”
Less than half of [employees] feel their mental health is prioritized at their company, and even fewer viewed their company leaders as advocates. “People Want Their Employers to Talk About Mental Health,” Harvard Business Review
The experience of Covid-19 offers us an opportunity to actively increase the conversation around and acceptance of mental health at work. How a company chooses to respond, especially in a time like this, goes a long way in helping managers and employees feel seen, valued, and productive. Here are three important steps employers can take now to support employees’ mental health and well-being.
1. Normalize the conversation around mental health.
We’ve all undergone a massive, abrupt transition. Everyone likely needs some kind of support to handle a huge influx of everyday stress, anxiety, worry about health and financial security, disruption, loneliness, and even grief at the sudden loss of everyday joys and anticipated events like vacations and graduations. We might be intensely consumed by one of these emotions or cycling through a mix of all of them. We might be coping fine, or feeling tremendous pressure to appear that we are.
This is all compounded by a huge amount of uncertainty. We don’t know how long this will last and what our “new normal” will look like. We’re all on this emotional rollercoaster together, with plenty of ups and downs.
As leaders, it’s helpful to express vulnerability and share your own experiences. You can do a personal check-in at the beginning of meetings, or just be honest about what you’re going through in conversation. This helps set the tone and the expectation that we don’t have to pretend like everything is fine if it’s not. Simply acknowledging these feelings can help team members feel more supported and open to receiving help that could make a real difference.
2. Be proactive instead of reactive.
During this time, it’s especially important to reach out and ASK how people are doing and what they need, and to do it frequently. Spend a few minutes at the beginning of every virtual meeting talking, asking, and sharing how it’s going. Encourage conversation and take the time to listen and really be with each other. Know that tears may be part of that conversation, and let that be ok.
It’s important to keep in mind that we are in a time of “physical distancing,” not “social distancing.” We need each other more than ever, and we have the opportunity to put our creativity to work. I recently left a computer video camera at my parents’ doorstep. My nearly 92-year-old father—who literally hasn’t stepped outside in more than a month—and I enjoyed his first ever video call. As we muddled through some pesky technology issues, he laughingly exclaimed, “This is fun!” Don’t wait for folks to come to you; make resources available to them and make creative suggestions. In times like these, there are no bad ideas.
“Don’t wait for folks to come to you; make resources available to them and make creative suggestions. In times like these, there are no bad ideas.”
It’s important to keep in mind that mental health can be invisible, and feeling isolated can magnify our emotions. Family or close friends may know someone is struggling but it may not be obvious to everyone, including co-workers interacting through video and phone. The fact that we can’t always “see” a mental health issue doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
Make sure your employees know about support resources outside the scope of your normal benefits plan. For example, educate yourself on how organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous are supporting clients virtually. Be prepared to offer employees direction. You don’t need to have all the answers, but a resource or two and an offer of support is a positive move.
3. Share and seek out resources for reducing stress and supporting mental health.
Carve out the time to educate managers and employees on the mental health benefits your company offers, and seek out new benefits to supplement. Many employers are revising their health plans to include new mental health benefits, such as programs for monitoring and reducing stress and workshops that encourage emotional resilience.
Telehealth options, from medical providers to fitness, are widely available during this crisis. Over the past month, I have participated in remote yoga, meditation, and mindfulness sessions that have helped me feel more balanced and centered to navigate my own experiences as a business owner, family member, friend, parent, and partner.
If you generally offer perks like stocked employee kitchens and fitness club memberships, consider converting them into opportunities with more flexibility. For example, you could replace a gym membership with a monthly allowance for online fitness classes, or you could reallocate your employee meal budget to support team members with at-home meal or grocery delivery. I know of employers who have sent their staff puzzles and games to enjoy with their families and activity kits for their kids. Thoughtful gestures like these can help reduce stress and communicate that you understand your employees are going through a tough time.
Mental health matters at work, now more than ever. I’m a firm believer in silver linings, and I believe this current shared experience offers us an opportunity to build better working environments that actively support both business productivity and personal well-being. If you need some creative inspiration or more resources to respond, we’re happy to help. Please reach out any time!