Aug. 26, 2020
Pandemic Stress Exacerbates Mental Health Concerns
When the U.S. shut down for COVID-19 in March, the conventional thinking was people would be returning back to the office about now, or sometime in the next month. After all, the COVID-19 outbreak was going to subside, and life was supposed to start returning to something approaching what it was like before the shutdown.
But as the pandemic drags on--likely for at least the rest of this year, and probably into the first part of 2021 in the most hopeful of scenarios--new challenges are emerging, whether employees are working in their homes, or whether they are heading back into the office.
The issues are as much mental as they are physical, and organizations are being tested in new and stress-inducing ways, as are workers trying to maintain productivity while juggling family responsibilities.
Beyond the physical challenges organizations face, they are having to deal with mental health questions, as workers--wherever they are--are struggling with months of stress, boredom, loneliness, domestic strife, or are being worn down by caring for elderly loved ones and/or children, among other concerns.
All this matters, as a survey in late June found one in four U.S. young adults between 19 and 24 said they considered suicide in the previous month because of the pandemic. More than four in 10 said they have experienced a mental or behavioral condition connected to COVID-19.
The same poll found more than 10% of U.S. adults had contemplated suicide because of the pandemic, while another survey found 53% of Americans said their mental health had deteriorated.
These are very serious warning signs, and organizations that don’t have expertise in handling employee mental health issues will quickly have to find that expertise.
The mental health crisis in America was here before COVID-19, but a positive part of the pandemic is it is forcing us to talk about it, Ron Carucci, co-founder and managing partner of leadership consulting firm Navalent, said last week during an LRN webcast I moderated.
An organization’s first line of defense will be its leaders, said Carucci, as managers are going to the first people to notice mental health problems on their teams. HR must ensure workers have access to mental health benefits, wellness benefits, and mindfulness tools.
“You need to have an array of services available to folks, and be actually talking to people about availing themselves" to them, Carucci said.
The key is to be a good listener, an active listener, and an observer of what might be going on with the people you are interacting with, Ellen Hunt, chief ethics and compliance officer at AARP, said during the discussion.
One of the things Hunt said she had stopped doing is asking people ‘How are you doing?’ because it can seem invasive of their privacy. “Instead, I say, ‘How can I help? What do you need?’ “ said Hunt.
Among the ways to help alleviate anxiety is to be as transparent as possible. “When you don’t know the answer, tell people you don’t know,” said Hunt. “We all do this, we all go to the worst-case scenario and make things up in our head.”
For example, if you don’t know about the company’s finances, you’re going to assume there’s going to be layoffs, or other bad things. “It’s important to tell people that when you don’t know, you don’t know,” and to make a commitment to tell them when you do know, said Hunt. “That can do a lot to help put people at ease.”
Terry Stringer, head of HP’s Office of Ethics and its Center for Excellence, said the company is communicating much more during COVID-19, with so much of its workforce still at home.
One of its initiatives is “Wellness Wednesday,” which features a psychologist leading discussion about topics, usually around mindfulness. There are sessions to help managers be able to talk to employees, and to identify when an employee may be facing some extra stress, or may just need a break, said Stringer.
“One of the things also learned through all of this is we can’t over-communicate," she said. "We need to communicate both intentionally and often.”
One of the things Stringer has done with her own group is to have a round-robin check-in at the start of each meeting, “to make sure everybody is doing OK, not just with work but with everything,” she said. “I think that goes a long way, just having that grace, that flexibility, and that empathetic ear.”
The pandemic is forcing leaders to show empathy in ways we’ve never seen before, said Carucci.
“If you were short on empathy and compassion, if you were not someone predisposed to be caring and thoughtful, before this, this will probably expose that,” he said. “The switch to working from home was hard, but the switch of returning to the office will be even harder.”
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