How Employers Can Support Employees' Mental Health During the Pandemic
Mike Veny is a workplace mental health speaker. Learn more about his programs here.
Several months ago I planned on writing a post to address what employers could do to support the mental health of their employees. When fear and anxiety began to grow around coronavirus, I decided to focus on that and wrote the article Fighting Anxiety in the Midst of the Covid-19 Pandemic: 7 Things You Can Do to Stay Calm. My thought was I'd wait to do the article for employers once this all blew over. And we all know how that ended up going.
But looking back, I'm glad I ended up waiting. Both employers and employees are facing new and unprecedented challenges. If there was ever a time where employers needed a little guidance on how to support the mental health of their employees, I believe it's right now.
So here's a little background on why I was originally planning on covering this topic. In February, a British television host died by suicide. Months before she had gone public on social media sharing that she struggled with anxiety and depression. And she had stepped down from her position with the network because she was awaiting the legal process after being charged with assault by her boyfriend.
Unfortunately, this type of situation is all too common. But when a TV personality or big name dies by suicide, it brings the topic into the mainstream media conversation. I stumbled across a discussion on LinkedIn about whether her employer should have done more to help her with her mental health. And the conversation turned to what type of responsibility employers should take for the mental health of their employees.
I thought it was not only an interesting conversation but a very important one that should be explored further. And now I believe this worldwide pandemic has made this a conversation we can't wait to have any longer.
What it looks like for an employer to support the mental health of their employees
When I started doing some research on this topic, I stumbled upon Paul Rosser. He's the founder of R & D Consulting, a UK-based company. I was immediately impressed by the work that Paul and his company were doing to support their employees with their mental health.
The company runs a program called "Bring Your Problems to Work". They encourage their employees to make them aware of any issues they're struggling with. Then they work with their employees to find a solution, whether it's time off to handle personal matters or paying a specialist to work with the employee through a more serious mental health challenge.
They also switched from a five-day workweek to a four-day workweek. In doing so, each employee works seven fewer hours a week but is still compensated the same amount they were before. Paul shared that they found not only are their employees having a healthier work-life balance, but their performance at work has improved as well.
But are employers responsible for supporting employee mental health?
You may be thinking, "Sure, Mike, that sounds good. But is this something that employers really need to be responsible for?"
Workplaces used to operate on the saying, "Leave your problems at the door". Many employers even flat-out said this to their employees when hiring them. And in theory, this strategy makes sense. Employers want employees to do their best work. They want them to show up, be on the ball and focused on their work.
What this theory leaves out is that employees are human. It's impossible for people to do.
People can't leave their problems at the door of the office
Think of it this way. If you were going through any one of the following situations, would you be able to go to work and not think about it for an entire workday?
- Waiting for test results to see if your child has cancer.
- Not having enough money in the bank account to fill your gas tank, let alone pay the stack of bills that are due.
- Going through a messy divorce.
Do you think you could do it? Probably not. And those are the types of worries that people face on a regular basis: health, finances, relationships. The list doesn't even include mental health challenges like depression, bipolar disorder, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
It's counterproductive not to support employee mental health
As someone who lives with mental health challenges, I'd love to see that employers are taking the step to support their employees just out of caring for them as people. But realistically, I know that's not always the way it works.
However, supporting your employees in this area also helps your bottom line. Paul explains it like this, "If you have employees suffering from mental health conditions, then it means they won't be able to perform at a high rate of efficiency and it ends up costing the company money."
A recent WHO-led study found that lost productivity due to mental health challenges costs the global economy $1 trillion annually. That's a statistic that speaks volumes.
So not only does supporting the mental health of your employees help them, it helps your company as well.
What expectations fall on the employer?
So as an employer, what should your employees expect from you? Where do you get started?
Here was Paul's answer to that question: "First and foremost they should expect to be able to discuss mental health conditions, which may be affecting their performance at work, with their employer without fear of any reprisals or negative consequences. Then a structured approach should be available which ensures the employee gets the help they need either internally or from expert third parties."
Here's what I like about that answer:
- It's supportive and accepting
- The solution doesn't have to fall on the employer
- It's something any employer can do
Your HR department doesn't have to know how to address all mental health challenges. They just need to provide a safe place for an employee to come so they can work together on finding a solution.
What challenges do employers face in supporting employees with mental health?
The main challenges that I see standing in the way of employers not offering better mental health support for employees include:
- Mental health stigma
- Not building trust with employees
Mental health stigma in the workplace
As a mental health keynote speaker, I work on addressing the stigma that surrounds mental health. I won't go into too much detail about it here. But if you want more information, you can check out the following resources:
- Transforming Stigma: How to Become a Mental Wellness Superhero
- TEDx talk Mental Illness is an Asset
- Video: Turning Stigma into Strength
Mental health stigma causes people to be afraid of making it known that they're struggling. They don't want to be viewed as crazy, weak, or a problem. The stigma stops them from reaching out for help because they don't want to admit they're struggling.
Not building trust with your employees
Let's be honest, most people don't think their boss cares about them. There is a lot of information online sharing that most employees don't leave companies, they leave bad bosses. The leadership within your organization makes a big difference in the success of the employees.
If your employees are afraid that they may lose their job for their mental health struggle, they aren't going to mention it to you. This means they may not get the help they need in order to move forward in a healthy way. And as we already discussed, this costs your company money.
Paul shares, "The only way I believe for corporations to resolve this is to create a culture where employees feel comfortable talking about their mental health conditions with the company and then together working out a plan to provide support and assistance to the employee so that the impact to the company is reduced. Sadly, a lot of companies don't take this approach and the moment they hear words like 'stress' or 'depression' they panic, and instead of trying to help the employee, they see them as an issue and try to find a way to get rid of them."
Supporting employees during the COVID-19 pandemic
All of this talk about how to support employee mental health gets a little fuzzier right now.
Employees who have never faced a mental health challenge before may be struggling with anxiety, loneliness, and depression. Employees who felt they had their mental health challenge under control may find they're struggling more than ever due to the changes in their routine and being stuck "safer-at-home".
Are you responsible for the pandemic? Of course not. And I know you have plenty of your own new stresses because of the current state of the economy. However, showing your support and interest in the wellness of your employees helps to build trust, which goes a long way toward employee retention.
We are facing challenges that none of us have faced before. And I truly believe the companies that take steps right now to support their employees will be rewarded with it throughout this time and once things return to more of what we think of as "normal".
Most people would prefer to do things to help those who help them. If you show your employees that you are committed to supporting them, they are more likely to go the extra mile for you as well. It's an important relationship you can build with employees.
What employers can be doing right now
It might feel like you have your work cut out for you in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, but there are some simple things that you can do right now to support employee mental health.
Share free resources
There are a lot of resources available to help people struggling with mental health challenges. You may have access to resources through your health insurance provider. If so, make sure your employees are aware of the options and how to use them.
If you don't know where to start, here are some you can share:
- Free online mini-course: How to Find Peace in Times of Uncertainty
- Where to Find Mental Health Immediately - resource list
Improve your skills for remote meetings
If you're like most employers right now, remote meetings are the only interaction that you're having with employees. It's important that you learn how to make the most of them.
Virtual meetings are not the same as in-person meetings. Look for ways to be flexible with your meetings. Keep in mind that your employees may also be balancing homeschooling their children through this time. See what you can do to make mandatory meetings efficient and add a personal touch.
Video meetings allow you to see your employees. Pay attention to your employees during the meeting. Look for signs that they may be struggling with their mental wellness.
Check on your employees
And I don't mean calling them to make sure they're getting all their work done. Take time to call your employees and talk to them one-on-one. Ask how they are. Ask what you can do to support them right now. People think their bosses don't care; show them this isn't true.
If you haven't had this type of relationship with your employees before, it doesn't mean you can't start now. They may be a little suspicious of you at first or afraid to really be honest. But if you stay consistent with checking in and offering support, eventually you will build that level of trust.
There are so many unknowns in life right now. We just don't really know what to expect. That's why it's more important than ever to be honest with your employees. Don't be vague when you talk to them. Let them know what your company is committed to and what they can expect from you.
Your company may be facing an unknown future. You don't have to have all the details for your employees, but if you do have something you can share with your employees, do it.
Do you need support?
I've spent the entire time talking about how you can support your employees' mental health, but don't forget about your own. Make sure that you're prioritizing self-care habits.
And finally, if you want to work on addressing mental health in your workplace right now, I'm offering virtual conferences that would allow all your employees to "attend" together. These presentations can be tailored to meet the needs of your organization. Explore your options today!
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