The COVID-19 crisis has changed almost everything about the American workplace. Tens of millions of employees have been furloughed or transitioned to home-based work, where they may be dealing with insufficient workspaces, a sense of isolation and competing caregiving and employment responsibilities. Other employees, including first responders and health care workers, are experiencing work on the front lines with a whole added set of concerns.
For many, there’s no firm answer about when they’ll be able to return to the workplace. Even when they do, they’re likely to have continued family duties for which the usual solutions no longer apply and feel anxious about whether coming out of quarantine will increase their coronavirus exposure risk.
Your employees are dealing with tremendous stress, both personally and professionally. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 45% of adults say the pandemic has affected their mental health, and 19% say the effect has been “major.” In a survey by mental health provider Ginger, nearly 70% of employees said the coronavirus is the most stressful time of their career, and 88% said they had experienced moderate to extreme stress over the past four to six weeks.
Mental health issues negatively affect job performance and productivity, therefore affecting the company’s bottom line. For that reason and, more importantly, because it’s the right thing to do, employers should forthrightly address their employees’ stress levels and mental health. Here are seven ways your small business can support remote workers’ mental health:
- Put employee health first. Communicate that your employees’ health and safety are your organization’s primary concern. Business continuity is important, and your employees will want assurance that the company expects to survive. But returning to normal operations can happen only if your workforce is healthy. Letting employees know you care about their overall wellbeing will alleviate some of their stress.
- Remind employees about mental health resources. Make it clear that you understand why employees may be feeling lonely, anxious and fearful. Be open about the fact that such feelings are reasonable under the circumstances, and encourage employees to be self-aware. Provide information about your company’s mental health-related benefits programs. Employees will feel more comfortable asking for support they know how to access counseling resources and employee assistance, wellness and financial planning programs.
- Reduce employees’ job stress. Jobs are especially stressful when employees have heavy workloads and taxing deadlines coupled with minimal autonomy. While you may not be able to reduce employees’ job demands while they are working from home, it’s a good time to evaluate whether you might be able to grant them greater authority to make decisions and control how they get work done.
- Let employees know their ideas matter. Ask employees about their concerns and solicit their ideas about how the company can help them feel confident during their remaining weeks at home and as they get ready to return to the workplace. Because ambiguity contributes to stress, keep employees informed as you make decisions about how the company will try to return to a normal routine and ensure their health and safety at the same time.
- Encourage breaks from stay-at-home pressures. Urge employees to set aside time every day to remove themselves from the greatest stressors and instead engage in activities they find energizing or restorative. Even 15 minutes of exercise, reading, deep breathing, watching funny videos or talking to a loved one can boost employees’ coping skills.
- Present opportunities for fun and connection. Online meeting platforms and technology like Limeade, an employee wellbeing tool, or Houseparty, a group video app, make it easy for colleagues to play games, laugh and learn together while practicing social distancing. The company only needs to set up the event and invite employees to participate.
- Recognize company leadership’s influence on employee mental health. Managers who are available and compassionate, who make employees’ mindsets a regular part of the conversation and who encourage workers to care for themselves both mentally and physically will help elevate employees’ spirits. Check in with employees regularly, asking questions like, “What words describe you emotionally right now?” Listen to the answers, acknowledge their feelings without judgment and ask how you can help.
During these challenging times, employees’ mental wellness must be as high a priority for small businesses as physical health is. Clear and open communication supported by other resources will help your employees remain healthy, safe and productive during the remaining weeks of quarantine. And, as states and counties begin lifting stay-at-home orders, focusing on employees’ mental health will both prepare them to return to the traditional workplace and give your company the resilience it will need in the months ahead.