By Keita Franklin, Ph.D., Chief Clinical Officer at Psych Hub
Today’s “new normal” is more than a remote work site, virtual happy hours, and social distancing in public. The new normal is also a constant state of anxiety, uncertainty, and stress that impact everyone’s mental health in different ways. Many employers are taking aggressive and innovative action to ensure the survival of their companies. Meetings and events are migrating into the virtual space and companies are developing business plans to remain financially solvent in the face of a volatile and uncertain future. In doing so, many companies are pushing employees to contribute in more creative ways and to remain constantly connected while knowing their continued employment is unclear. It’s a lot to ask of employees who are already under high degrees of stress. In today’s unusual working world, it is more important than ever for employers to consider workplace mental wellness as a critical element of business practices.
Stress and anxiety impacts employees and their families in so many harmful ways. How do I know this? Because I’ve seen a nation ravaged by fear before. And I’ve also seen how that fear can erode mental wellness.
As a young social worker on September 11th, 2001, I was serving at McChord Air Force Base in the Family Advocacy Program. My colleagues and I served a military installation of more than 7,000 military and civilian personnel and their families. Like all other military bases, the seamless functioning of McChord Air Force Base was based on organization, discipline, and social control. Following the events of 9/11 however, I witnessed a country thrust into a state of high stress and uncertainty. Similar to what we’re experiencing now, 9/11 changed our daily lives. Military bases were locked down. Domestic flights were grounded. The stock market dropped precipitously. And even basic services, such as cell phone coverage, were significantly limited. The tragic events of 9/11 impacted everyone across the nation and the military community at McChord Air Force Base was not immune.
Despite all of the logistical turmoil and economic unrest, perhaps the worst was the uncertainty of what tomorrow would look like. Nobody knew what was going to happen next. Our minds churned with unanswerable questions such as: Were the terrorist attacks over? What should I do to protect my family? Where will I be able to get help if I need it?
During this time, I ran a “Deployed Spouse Support” group. As you can imagine, the uncertainty among military members and their families was even greater. Is my husband or wife, son or daughter, going to war? How long will they be gone? Will I be able to talk to them? These were questions we couldn’t answer for the families, but we knew our first duty, at its most basic, was to comfort them. To help alleviate the stress. To reduce the anxiety. And we knew this began with providing social support and helping them to avoid social isolation.
Before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Deployed Spouse Support group was as small as 15 regular attendees. Following 9/11 and subsequent deployment of a large segment of the base, these groups swelled to well over 125 spouses and family members. Where we used to hold the support group once a week, we began holding it three times a week, and military spouses were often called upon to respond to emergent family issues 24/7. The demand for comfort through connectiveness was higher than it had ever been.
I tell this story not to compare 9/11 to the COVID-19 pandemic, but rather to highlight the fact that people seek social connectedness during times of high stress and anxiety. What makes our current situation so challenging for employers is the remedy for slowing the spread of coronavirus—social isolation—also creates significant risk factors for emotional wellbeing. In other words, you have a period of high stress and anxiety and limited social connectedness.
In such an environment, employers will need to find creative solutions to look after employee mental wellness. Here are some specific actions employers can take during this unusual time:
Encourage Social Connectedness
From a morning coffee chat to a virtual happy hour, hosting online social activities to connect your employees with each other can change the tone and trajectory of their days – and their moods! Keep in mind that your employees have all different kinds of home lives. Some may not have family members in their households to talk about the anxiety they might be experiencing. Some might be feeling added stress without the ability to leave their personal lives behind for at least eight hours a day. You should also be particularly mindful that many might be feeling a significant work-life imbalance in the new remote work environment. Offering fun, pressure-free opportunities for them to connect with each other can help to alleviate some of these stressors and create a sense of normalcy.
Set Clear Boundaries for Remote Work
Make an effort to keep standard working hours during this time of remote work. Be straightforward and communicative about your expectations for working overtime, lunch, and breaks, as well as after-hours connectivity. It will also be helpful to set clear boundaries about work structure, such as availability for meetings and maintaining project deadlines. Most of all, lead by example and ensure that supervisors are remaining consistent with time management and accountability.
Get Creative with Your Communications
Working remotely is easier for some than others. Introverted or creative employees, for instance, typically are naturally independent workers. In this environment, their contributions can be less visible, and they may struggle with understanding how to communicate their ideas in group video or conference calls. Conversely, employees who thrive in a team environment may suddenly feel unanchored and isolated, less confident in their ability to see “the big picture.” Develop flexible and varied means for employees to contribute during this time. Whether it’s something as whimsical as turning a brainstorming session into a contest, or requesting input through an anonymous poll, get creative about how you engage your employees.
Ensure Wellness Resources Are Readily Available
Even if you believe your workplace wellness program is visible and well-communicated, this is not the time to take for granted its saturation. You cannot overcommunicate to your employees concerning the resources your organization has available, because you cannot predict when they may need to avail themselves of those resources. Some employees may seem as though they are adjusting to the current environment well, but that may change as the environment changes. Relaunch your wellness resources, distribute them widely, inject messaging about them into your all staff meetings, and repeat these steps as often as weekly during this time of additional stress. If you have the means to provide mental health experts through your Employee Assistance Program, ensure the provider has a telehealth option and that your employees know that counseling is available to them.
Provide Hope, But Be Transparent
As employers, you need to motivate your employees now, more than ever, to maintain productivity. Keeping spirits up and providing hope is vital to employee morale. But keep it real. Acknowledge challenges your company may be anticipating, even if that includes budgetary concerns that could lead to staffing changes. Your employees are thinking about these possibilities anyway, so ignoring it will only damage morale as imaginations and uninformed chatter will add to their anxiety. Be firm in your commitment to maintaining normal operations, while acknowledging the volatility of the environment may influence the health of the organization. Above all, let employees know they are valued and that you are taking every possible step to ensure job security and fiscal health across the organization.
There is no way to predict how the current pandemic will ultimately affect the nation’s economy, let alone your organization. American businesses are pivoting to remain relevant and operational during this unique time. To do that, you will need a workforce that is capable of pivoting with you. In addition to usual work stressors, your employees are operating with immediate concerns for their health and safety, while simultaneously dealing with a transformed work structure that includes new procedures and less coworker support. Make their mental wellness your priority, and you will develop a stronger, more productive workforce with which to move forward.