Since 2020, Americans have adapted to a pandemic that impacted nearly every aspect of life, from work and school to everyday activities like getting groceries and even our wardrobes. Whether employees are working remotely or in person, COVID-19 has also impacted the mental health of employers and employees. Additionally, the unemployment rate increased to 14.7 percent in April 2020 and has yet to return to its 3.5 percent pre-pandemic rate.
Source: “The Employment Situation – November 2020.” Bls.gov, Bureau of Labor Statistics, www.bls.gov/ news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf
Impact of the Pandemic on Mental Health of Employees
In 2021, Mental Health America (MHA) published its third annual Work Health Survey which measured the perceptions of over 5,000 employees across 17 industries in the U.S. The report yields insights into how we may better understand the mental health challenges employees were and are experiencing during the pandemic. Survey questions measured financial insecurity, burnout, supervisor support, workplace stress, and mental illness. The findings of the survey are alarming.
• Employees who report earning an annual income of less than $60,000 are concerned about their finances.
• Nearly 2 in 3 employees cannot save for an emergency.
• About 1 in 3 employees cannot afford their healthcare costs.
• Most employees are experiencing the early signs of burnout.
• Employees experiencing exhaustion, an early sign of burnout, report that workplace stress affects their mental health.
• Nearly 1 in 4 employees experienced the more severe signs of burnout, including reduced production and cynicism towards coworkers and their jobs.
• Employees are not receiving adequate support from supervisors to help manage stress.
• Employees who cannot talk to their supervisors about job stressors are less likely to perceive their workplace as a safe environment for employees who live with mental illnesses.
• Employers who do not provide and educate employees about mental health resources are less likely to be perceived as a safe environment for employees who live with mental illnesses.
• Employees who feel acknowledged at work are less likely to seek out other employment opportunities.
Workplace Stress and Mental Illness
• Nearly 9 in 10 employees report that their workplace stress affects their mental health.
• Over 65 percent of employees find it difficult to concentrate because of their work environment, compared to 46 percent of respondents in 2018.
• Nearly 3 in 5 employees feel that their employer does not provide a safe environment for employees with mental illness.
• The majority of employees surveyed are seeking new employment opportunities.
Employers are talking about Mental Health
But there is good news! In January of this year, the American Psychological Association reported that employers are talking about employee mental health more than before. Even pre-pandemic, employers were learning to be more proactive in identifying symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other disorders. According to a 2020 survey by Business Group on Health, nearly half of large employers trained their managers to recognize such issues, and an additional 18 percent planned to begin to do so in 2021. Plus, 54 percent of employers planned to offer free or low-cost virtual mental health visits in 2021.
Paying more attention to employee mental health is an essential first step because so much of what contributes to employee stress can be addressed in the following ways:
• Employers can make employee mental health a priority.
• They can encourage people to talk about it.
• They can build supports for both in-person, hybrid, and fully remote workforces.
Here are some tactics to address each of the stressors outlined in the Work Health Survey:
Work Collaboratively to Improve Financial Insecurity
MHA asserts that both federal and state governments must work collaboratively to enforce meaningful change in minimum wage and income equality policy to ensure all people feel financially secure, especially in a traumatic event or emergency such as a global pandemic.
Address Early Signs of Employee Burnout
For employees experiencing exhaustion, supervisors should assist employees with managing or adjusting their workload. In addition, interventions could include supervisors encouraging employees to take a personal day or plan a vacation to recharge. Employees often express concern about not being able to take needed time off when handling an unmanageable workload.
Consider the source for late stages of burnout. For employees experiencing cynicism or reduced professional efficacy, interventions could include a change in supervisors, teams, or projects or seeking out other positions or responsibilities within the company.
Share stress management information during orientation. New employee orientation and onboarding are opportunities to share the importance of managing stress and balancing work-life demands. In addition, educate new employees about company policies and resources that support employee mental health.
Inform employees of policies and programs. Education about stress management and burnout prevention should be an ongoing part of staff communication. Send written or verbal reminders to staff about the resources that support mental health, and encourage employees to use available benefits, such as Employee Assistance Programs or paid time off.
Regular check-ins with employees can help supervisors better understand their needs and provide the appropriate support. In addition, regular supervisor check-ins should emphasize bi-directional feedback, acknowledge employees’ efforts, and provide emotional support. If an employee expresses a mental health concern, here’s how the supervisor can start the conversation:
• Ask appropriate open-ended questions.
• Actively listen with complete attention to the employee.
• Recognize their feelings and express understanding back to them.
• Encourage them to use the company’s mental health resources.
Supervisors should negotiate realistic expectations and strategize how to best meet these expectations under the given circumstances in collaboration with employees. In terms of employee output, focus on goals accomplished rather than hours logged. Being patient and flexible as a supervisor can mean a lot for employees struggling with their mental health.
According to MHA’s Mind the Workplace 2018 Report, having positive relationships with coworkers and supervisors is the top reason employees feel satisfied at work. Connection is critical, and supervisors can help facilitate how employees stay connected in a virtual work environment.
Aspire to be empathetic. Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share feelings. Allegedly, empathy cannot be taught, but it can be inspired. At The BridgeWay, demonstrating empathy is at the core of our values in providing quality care and supporting our employees.
Talk About Mental Illness
According to MHA, employers that acted with transparency and flexibility likely experienced a smoother transition during the pandemic than companies that did not consider workplace culture, especially in high-stress or remote work environments.
To provide a safe and welcoming environment for employees who live with mental illnesses, employers should consider:
• Hiring and training supervisors to feel comfortable providing emotional support.
• Encouraging employees to talk to their supervisors about changing job stressors.
• Encouraging supervisors to check in with employees regularly.
• Providing proper recognition to employees for their efforts.
• Providing additional resources for emotional support.
• Practice and demonstrate self-care.
For more information about how to promote a supportive workplace, please visit MHA’s website at www.mhanational.org/workplace
Self-Care is Trending
One of the positive outcomes of the pandemic is that people are exploring self-care more than ever. For example, a May 11, 2020 Tweet by Google Search Trends revealed that self-care was at an all-time high. Specifically, the number of searches for “self-care” has more than doubled since 2015. Given the stigma associated with mental illness and the treatment thereof, it is encouraging that more people are paying attention to their mental health. I hope we can continue that trend as the pandemic continues and eventually subsides.
Considering that nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness, employers cannot afford to ignore the financial impact that mental health has on the workplace.