Q: How have major changes in employees’ work environments impacted their stress during the COVID-19 pandemic?
A: “I’ve noticed an increase in both stress and anxiety. Stress is more present-focused and how someone is going to handle things right now. Anxiety is more future-focused and tends to be more about what is about to happen: ‘What am I worried about for tomorrow?’ Given what’s happening in the world, people don’t know what’s going to happen to their families, in their personal life, and in their professional life. It can then spiral into, ‘Well then, what do I need to do today to change, prepare for, or affect the outcome for tomorrow?’ So, there are these intertwined feelings of both anxiety and stress.
Also, the remote-working environments have now removed boundaries between your personal life and your professional life. Whereas before, you’d be able to get in your car or get on the bus or the train, and you have your commute into the office as transition time. This would allow you to mentally prepare and think, ‘OK, I’m getting ready for work — what’s my to-do list?’ You’ve got this space to get into ‘work mode.’ And then similarly, at the end of the day, you’d have the space to decompress and say, ‘OK, I’ll deal with that tomorrow,’ and you’d have your commute home to unwind from work. We don’t have that anymore because as soon as you wake up, you’re immediately ‘on’ and jumping into a video call. So, you’ve gone from having time and space signaled by your commute to no transitions or very small, quick transitions right out of bed. Now it feels like work and life have just blurred together.”
Q: Mental health can be a sensitive topic in the workplace – is that shifting at all due to the pandemic?
A: “Yes, I think people are more willing to be vulnerable in this new way of working because it’s happening to everyone — not just to a select group. We’re all going through similar feelings and emotions, and it’s heightened during this time. When people are having feelings that are much more amplified, we as leaders should acknowledge the sentiment and do what we can to help employees cope. That could mean giving space for the discussion and being more open to sharing.
This is where emotionally intelligent managers are really going to do well. To help employees, leaders will need to listen to them even more than before. Honestly, it’s also going to be employees helping their managers do that. As an employee, if your manager is not giving you the emotional intelligence, empathy, style of working, or the style of listening that you need, speak up. If there’s any time in history to be that open with your leaders and hold them accountable for being empathetic, it’s now.”
Q: What can HR and organizational leaders do to support employees’ mental well-being when they’re working remotely and to stay connected?
A: “I think leaders need to remember that while people are working remotely, they are not working 24/7. They need to set the example of creating boundaries and prioritizing their work even more so because of the blurred lines between work and home. What’s most important, especially during this crisis, is to take care of ourselves and demonstrate what this looks like for our teams. The whole ‘putting on the oxygen mask on ourselves first before others’ comes to mind. For example, I had planned a trip to L.A. with my daughter before the pandemic hit. Rather than cancel my time-off request, I went ahead and used those days instead to take a break from work, detaching from my devices. I needed that break and encouraged my team to do the same.
Leaders should also recognize when your team is trying to combat isolation while working remotely. What can we do to sincerely make connections with those teammates beyond the superficial or very casual ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ on Slack? How about trying to say something like, ‘What are you working on today? Did you go for that run you were talking about yesterday? Do you want to video chat and catch up over coffee later?’
I try to think about the positives that have come out of what’s happening right now, and I think that there’s this sense of empathy that maybe we haven’t had before for our colleagues who were already working remotely. I feel like moving to an all-remote work environment has evened the playing field because everyone is isolated at the same time. Collaboration has to be done by video or phone — everything has to be done virtually. It has definitely opened the eyes of not just the people working with each other, but also for management and the people running companies. We’re reminded to think about the different ways people need to communicate with each other. If there’s any time to be personalizing your communications, it’s now — knowing your audience, format, frequency, tone, and channel that your teams do better in communicating with.
During a time like this, you shouldn’t overwhelm employees with a bunch of information. From a mental health standpoint, it’s important to give things that are actionable. We often talk about needing employees to be more strategic, thinking and talking at a higher level. I actually think for our mental health, we need to be more tactical, specific, and actionable. That gives you a sense of control, and you have more oversight of how you can influence that outcome versus having something so big, so you don’t have all the answers.”
Q: How can organizations and leaders continue advancing toward their strategic objectives while still prioritizing the mental health of their employees?
A: “Personalizing communication for the scenario that the person is in is important. Provide context — help employees see how the work they’re doing is contributing to the big picture. I think creating those links and seeing those connections will be important. Be vocal and visible about the work that you’re doing, and check in to see if there’s any disconnect.
Also, revisit your priorities from the beginning of the year, comparing them to today. ‘OK, what will still help us achieve our business objectives for today?’ and rewrite your goals — it’s OK to rewrite your goals. Right now, in this world of ambiguity, unknown, and uncertainty, think about, ‘What should I be working on?’ I think this is a question that a lot of employees have on their minds because the things that they were doing as part of their former day-to-day may have changed now.”
Q: How can employers address mental health in the workplace year-round?
A: “As employers, we should be taking inventory of how we’re communicating with our teams year-round and the sentiment we’re building among our teams. Right now, there’s heightened sensitivity on how our communications are coming across, whether we’re using the right tone or approach. Well, you should be doing this year-round. There was one stat I read recently that the emotion a manager projects — even in team meetings — can affect the mood of their team for the rest of their day by 10x. So, if you have a great, energetic stand-up in the morning, everyone’s going to be ready to go. The opposite is also true — it’s a ripple effect. Leaders need to be conscious of what they’re projecting to their employees: their tone, body language, and facial expressions. These incremental moments can affect someone’s mental and emotional state.
I also think it’s important for a leadership team to acknowledge when employees aren’t in the right headspace for something and can’t do their best work, making sure they’re OK and being supported. If there’s anything that I think leaders can take away from this, it’s that the sense of acknowledgment is critical during these uncertain times. To acknowledge someone is to say, ‘I see you. You are important. You matter.’”
While May is Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s crucial for employers to be mindful of their team’s overall well-being year-round. Beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, employees may face a variety of challenges at work and in their personal life that can affect their health, productivity, engagement with others and the organization, and more. Leaders can provide comfort and support by listening, acknowledging their employees’ emotions and situations, and providing access to the right outlets and programs. For more information, refer to this Health and Wellness Guidance document, which is part of GuideSpark’s Communicating During Uncertainty resources.