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Mental Health During Covid-19, The Workplace and Looking forward

By Madison Hanscom, Ph.D.

It is an understatement to say things are uncertain right now, and stressors are emerging from multiple directions. Stressors related to the virus itself (Will my loved ones be ok? Will vulnerable populations be ok? Will I be ok?), changes associated with the virus (How will I balance working from home with my children? How will I handle the loss of my job? When can I go back to work? How will I pay my rent this month?). Unemployment is at an all-time high. In the United States alone, 20.5 million jobs were lost in April. This has major psychological implications in addition to the economic hardship. ​

A recent study uncovered just how much Americans are struggling during this pandemic. Compared to 2018, those sampled in 2020 were eight times more likely to report indicators related to serious mental illness (1). Some groups are struggling more than others. For instance, in 2018, only 4% of individuals between ages of 18 and 29 reported serious mental distress, whereas in 2020 this was much higher at 38%. This group experienced the largest increase in mental distress. The researchers explained how this can likely be attributed to the economic hardship placed on these individuals. They are experiencing more disruption financially and were more likely to lose their jobs. Another explanatory variable can be added stressors at home. Among those in this group (18-44), those with young children at home experienced even larger increases in mental distress than those without kids at home. 

This is clearly a pervasive issue and the effects of mental distress do not just go away when the economy is back to normal. It is important to remember that primary prevention (supporting mental health before it becomes an issue) is the best way to avoid complications down the road. Although many individuals are suffering currently, it is critical to also consider those not yet reporting negative symptoms as well. For those already suffering, this will take time to heal and support is needed immediately. Thus, there are great implications for the present and future when it comes to the workplace. As we navigate the current situation and the recovery period, it will be more important than ever to look forward and prioritize strategies to build resources to support mental health for all individuals, both inside and outside of work. People spend a large proportion of their lives working; leaders and coworkers can have a big impact.   

Looking Forward: What can we do as leaders?

• Remove the stigma. Let your employees know it is accepted and encouraged to discuss and prioritize their mental health. Speak openly about mental health and educate your workforce using credible sources. 
• Offer as much flexibility as possible. Everyone needs something different right now. Some are caring for older parents and need to take a break for a medical appointment, some are caring for younger children and need a break for a homeschool assignment, and others want the classic 8-4 without a break. As much as possible, provide flexibility for your employees by building in freedom to complete assignments at their own pace according to their own schedule. Try and structure work and deliverables to accommodate the possibility that life will interfere with work.
• Promote work-life balance and work-life integration. Again, every employee might want something different. Some might want hard boundaries between work and life, whereas others might prefer a more integrated approach. Regardless, help your employees build a schedule and environment that supports what works for them to feel recovered and refreshed. Check in to see what works for them and share what has been working for you. Let them know it is ok if what you do is not sustainable for them personally. For instance, if you prefer checking emails at 9pm and they enjoy that time to unwind, let them know it is perfectly acceptable to wait until the morning to log in.
• Build a culture that supports recovery. Recovery is important for a happy and productive workforce. When you create a climate that signals to employees it is acceptable to take time off (i.e., vacation time) to recover, people reap the benefits of taking this time. When your culture does not encourage time off or makes employees feel pressure or guilt, they do not recover from stress as effectively (2). For instance, upon returning from vacation time, individuals working in a culture they perceive to encourage time off report feeling more productive, energized, motivated, and have better work quality than those working in a culture that does not encourage time off (2). 
• Offer empathy and active care. Remember to check in with your employees regularly about their life outside of work in addition to their job role. Take genuine interest in them as people and learn what matters to them. Try to keep track of their experiences so you can celebrate victories with them and grieve losses. 
• Connect employees to resources. There are valuable resources for supporting mental health both inside and outside of the workplace. If your organization offers employee assistance plans or insurance benefits that could support mental health, consider distributing this information to employees. There are also a variety of virtual counseling options, hotline numbers, and other supports. Please see the bottom of this post for additional sources. 
• Prioritize your mental health. Similar to how we should put on an oxygen mask before helping others on an airplane, you should take care of your mental health in order to best help others. If you are struggling psychologically, it is likely you will not be as effective of a leader. For instance, you might struggle being perceptive and empathetic towards your own employees. Acting as a role model for good mental health practices can go a long way – it signals to employees it is important. 

Looking Forward: What can we do as workers and coworkers?

• Focus on self-care. Although it seems basic, the foundational components of self-care are extremely important for our mental health. Unfortunately, when things get tough, sometimes these are the first things to slip through the cracks. We can all use a reminder to check in with our self-care routines. This includes exercise, avoiding alcohol or other substances, eating healthy, getting enough sleep, and doing what it takes for you to recharge (like calling a friend or reading a book). 
• Limit screen time and news intake. This one speaks for itself. Spending too much time engaging in media coverage, especially polarizing stories, can be a stressor in itself. Be aware of the amount of time you consume media related to the pandemic and resulting crises. Taking a step back by enjoying a walk or chatting with a loved one on the phone can be a great way to reset. 
• Support one another. Reach out and check in with your coworkers. Ask them about how they are doing outside of work. Make this a regular habit, not just a one-time occurrence. Also consider setting up virtual happy hours if you or your coworkers are in a more isolating environment than usual. 
• Speak up. If you are having a difficult time or you feel discomfort growing, speak up and try advocating for yourself. Too many of us suffer in silence or wait too long. Consider reaching out to someone you trust and/or consulting resources at the bottom of this page. You are not alone – the numbers show a large increase in mental distress.

A safe workplace means employees who are psychologically and physically healthy. At Propulo Consulting, our focus has always been on safe production. Please visit our website for the latest insights and research into leadership effectiveness during COVID-19. 

Please also see our blog called “Checking in with your employees: mitigating burnout during a pandemic” 

Resources: 
•The CDC’s website on mental health coping during COVID: 
https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html
•Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:
https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline
•National Institute of Mental Health Resources(includes where to find immediate help in a crisis, finding a health care provider or treatment, and more information): 
https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/find-help/index.shtml

References: 
(1) https://psyarxiv.com/wc8ud; Mental Distress among US adults during the COVID-19 pandemic 
(2) American Psychological Association; Center for Organizational Excellence, 2018 Work and Well-being Survey

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