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The Mental Health Impact of the Employee Shortage Crisis

Now that we're more than a year into the pandemic, have a vaccine, and are living in a reopening world, a new challenge has arrived. Just over a year ago, people were panicked wondering how they were going to make it without their job and the paycheck that came with it. We were desperate for things to reopen. But now that they are, employees aren't rushing back to fill the job openings. And while the news is covering how this is going to impact the economy long-term, I see another area being negatively impacted—our mental health.

I believe that the employee shortage is negatively impacting the mental health and emotional wellness of employers, employees, and those who haven't returned to work. And in addition, it's become one more thing for people to take opposing viewpoints on.

So, as a mental health speaker and corporate wellness trainer, I want to take a few minutes to address this growing concern. Regardless of where you fall in the categories of employer vs employee vs receiving unemployment, there is a message for you below.

The mental health challenges of employees in 2021

Employees are facing new challenges to their mental health in 2021 in addition to the "normal" challenges they were already facing.

If you're working right now, chances are good that you're feeling more pressure than ever. There is just as much, or more, work to be done and fewer people doing it. That means each employee is taking on extra hours or additional tasks in order to keep up.

On top of that, many employees are having poor experiences with the public. This message is coming through loud and clear from restaurant workers and those in hospitality positions.

The "give it to me now" mentality

For years, in America, we've been living in a "fast-food" society. We're used to getting what we want, when we want it, without having to wait. But most companies aren't able to operate at that level right now.

Even Amazon Prime isn't bringing everything to your door within 48 hours.

And this is leaving people who are used to the "I want it now" mentality disappointed and aggravated. Unfortunately, some of these people are taking it out on those who are working. And it's just one more way the employee shortage is negatively impacting the mental health of employees who have returned to work.

No one wants to show up at work when they are shorthanded and then listen to complaining customers all day long.

And while there are some important things that employers should be doing to support employees (I'll get to that in a few minutes), there are some things you can do as a working employee to protect your mental health and emotional wellness.

What employees can do for their mental health during the employee shortage

I want to start off by saying "Thank you"! I appreciate the work that you're doing and the fact that it's helping us reopen the country and get back to life.

Whether or not your job looks different now than it did pre-pandemic, it's important to pay attention to the impact that it's having on your mental health. There are a few key things you can do to help yourself feel and operate at your best.

  • Know your boundaries. Your employer may be shorthanded, but you can't take the weight of the world on your shoulders. There are times you might not be able to take on more hours or more tasks. If you're constantly taking on work that's not part of your role, talk to your manager to see what other options are available to correct the situation.
  • Consider a career change. There are many companies looking for employees right now. If you dreaded going to work before the pandemic hit, this is a great time to consider trying out a different role or a completely different career. Consider your options.
  • Practice daily self-care. Developing a self-care routine is important for your mental health and emotional wellness. If this is an area where you struggle, I have a few self-care resources available on my website.
  • Do your best to block out the negativity. You can't control what happens to you or the way that you're treated, but you can control your reaction. If you have a demanding customer who doesn't seem to understand the impact of the employee shortage, don't take their actions personally. Remember that the negative way they're acting is a reflection on them and not on you.

The mental health impact of being "unemployed"

Let me make clear that I know you cannot group an entire group of people together based on just one factor. I believe this is true of race, gender, political party, and any other area. I understand there are some people who are unable to work right now or unable to work at all.

This message is directed at people who became unemployed during the pandemic and are choosing to stay on unemployment right now. You may not like what I'm about to say, but it's coming from genuine care for you.

I understand that with the additional unemployment benefits, you may be "making" more money than you did when you were working. This makes it easy to feel like there is more benefit for you to stay home than return to work.

But having a job is not just about money.

When we work and see the positive impact and results of the work that we do, it feels good. Creating success in your life helps to build healthy confidence. We are not here to simply consume.

There's also a sense of pride that we can get from the work that we do. I'm not saying that your identity should be wrapped up in your work, but there's something that feels good within me at the end of a day when I can reflect on the impact and results of my work for the day.

You may be able to get the money you need to keep the bills paid and food on the table from unemployment, but that's where it ends. You're not using your skills and talents. You're not setting the example of what hard work can accomplish for your children or others around you. And you're not gaining the personal benefits that come from working.

Working provides you the opportunity to be free from dependency

I understand that some of you don't feel it's worth your time to go to work. Why work hard for long hours to continue barely getting by when you can be at home and do the same thing? I understand where you're coming from, but I want to challenge you to think bigger.

You don't have to settle for going back to the life you lived before the pandemic if you don't want to. Take the first opportunity you can and then continue working and looking for the new opportunities that naturally arise when you're doing your best work day in and day out.

When you're capable of working, it helps you better yourself, which helps you feel better. This empowers you to be more motivated to create the life you want. It allows you to be free from the dependency that you may struggle with right now.

Just because it's been one way in the past, doesn't mean you need to continue to let it be that way now. You have the power to change your situation so you can live the life that you want. But just like in making improvements in any area, it's going to take some work.

Do what you can do

While the unemployment benefits were necessary for a time and helped many people stay afloat during a global pandemic, we're in a different place in 2021 than we were in 2020. Those who are able to work can benefit mentally and emotionally from taking the steps to do so.

So if you're not working and could be, I encourage you to take the first step in going back to work.

For those who aren't working due to health concerns

If you're not working and aren't ready to return because of fear and concern for your health, the message above is not for you. 

You have a right to be concerned about your health and make the decisions that are right for you. I want to encourage you to pursue things that you can do from home. Get creative about finding a way that you can work and experience the benefits of it in a way that you're comfortable. 

There are many companies searching for remote workers. Explore the job boards to see what could be a good fit for you. Or consider working as a freelancer or consultant if you have the skills to do so. There are many job boards like Fiverr and Upwork where you can search for clients. 

And if you weren't previously in a job that transitions to remote work, consider building your skills during this time so you will qualify for a new position. Most local library websites have access to free training courses that can help you learn new skills that provide you the opportunity to work from home. 

There are many possibilities out there when you get creative and look for them.

A message for HR leaders and employers

As an HR leader or employer, I know you're facing unique challenges this year as well. You have work that needs to be done but can't seem to get employees in the door. And in addition, the employees you do have may be struggling from burnout.

It's more important than ever that you're focusing on the mental health and well-being of your employees. Here are some things you can do:

1. Show your appreciation

Gratitude goes a long way in helping keep spirits lifted in trying times. It's easy to take the approach of thinking that you're paying your employees to do their job and that should be all they need, but it's not. You aren't working with robots; you're working with humans.

Communicate to them how grateful you are for the work their doing. If you have employees who are going above and beyond or keeping a great attitude even when it's extra busy, point it out. Thank your employees both in public and on a one-on-one level.

Make sure they know you appreciate them being part of the team. Not only will this do wonders for your employees, but it may also help draw in new employees. People like to work for employers that appreciate the work they do.

2. Stand behind your employees

There was an old saying we've all heard that doesn't always ring true—"the customer's always right". Except they aren't always right. And in this day and age when they feel like they can demand whatever they want and have a temper tantrum if it takes longer than they think it should, they're dead wrong.

If you have customers who are being rude to your employees, don't allow it. You're better off turning away a rude customer than losing a good employee who has reached the point of being too fed up with rude customers to stick around any longer.

When your employees know that you've "got their back", they're likely to become even more loyal to you and your business. People want to work for those who care about them on an individual level.

3. Provide them with the resources they need

It's important to take a proactive approach to support the mental health and wellbeing of your employees. This starts by being aware and observant. You don't want to wait until there is already a problem before you take action.

Provide your employees with access to mental health resources. Make sure they're familiar with any available medical benefits and what they need to do in order to use them. Don't wait for your employees to ask the questions. Seek out ways to make the information available to them publicly and privately.

Help your employees set boundaries by sticking to the guidelines established in their job descriptions. If you need to have employees on call after work hours, have employees on a rotating schedule so there isn't one person who is always on call. People need to have time available when they know they can rest without having to jump into work mode if called upon.

You can also provide them with access to tools to help them create self-care routines in their lives. I have several options available that you can use:

Seeking peace in our differences

During this time it's important for everyone to keep an open mind and focus on understanding different perspectives. Even if you can't agree with them, we don't need one more thing in life causing a divide between people after the past year. That means if you're working and frustrated with people who aren't, try to put yourself in their shoes.

For many people it's not just about the fact that they don't want to go back to their job. It's about the fact that with additional unemployment benefits, they may be able to support their family better by not working than what they are able to from holding a job.

It's also important to remember that while you may be comfortable with where we stand in the Covid pandemic right now, not everyone feels the same way. There are different levels of comfort with things like vaccinations, social distancing rules, and masks. You may not feel the same way, but you don't have to.

Being kind and remembering that people feel differently about things is all you need to do.

The mental health benefits of "work"

If you're currently not working because you're receiving unemployment benefits, think about why other people may be frustrated.

People who are working right now are taking on additional work because of the employee shortage. With people remaining out of the workforce, it's causing more stress on the employees who are working. Even if you're uncomfortable or unable to return to work, instead of getting defensive and frustrated with the people who don't understand your viewpoint, do your best to think about it from their perspective.

Again, as I've said in many of my previous blog posts, you don't have to have the same opinion as someone else in order to get along with them. It's important that we all focus on our mental health. And in addition to their own mental health, employers need to focus on helping their employees as well.

And finally, if you're not working right now, consider going back to work for the added benefits it brings you outside of a paycheck. This can be an incredible turning point in your career, finances, confidence, and mental health. Remember, a job is not just about a paycheck. It's about social connection, healthy self-confidence, and creating new opportunities to improve yourself.

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