How to Support Employee Mental Health During a Crisis

The mental health of workers should always be a concern for businesses. During the COVID-19 pandemic, struggles with mental health have skyrocketed as people are confronted with new work-life challenges—working from home while trying to school their kids online at the same time and balancing other home and family obligations against work responsibilities. In some cases, spouses and partners have lost their jobs due to the pandemic—which ratchets up financial and relationship pressures even further.

The Impact of the Pandemic on Worker Mental Health

“Depression, alcohol, and other substance misuse and anxiety have all skyrocketed because of COVID,” notes Sagar Parikh, a professor of psychiatry and associate director of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Depression Center. “It’s having an impact on the business bottom line because sick employees mean decreased productivity and increased incidents at work.” 

The pandemic is certainly wreaking havoc on individuals, relationships, and families. Since the pandemic outbreak, according to a survey conducted by EY, SAP, and Qualtrics, 75% of people feel more socially isolated, 57% feel more anxiety, 53% are more emotionally exhausted, and 67% report more stress. Yet, at the same time, the majority of workers indicate they have not had time to address their mental health challenges because of the additional pressures the pandemic has added to their lives.

Recommendations on Helping Workers to Cope with Mental Stresses

Businesses need to take note of these trends and work to ensure that their employees have mental health support. And with the implications of the pandemic continuing well into 2021, if not longer, businesses need a longer-term strategy to help their workers deal with the mental stresses that come with it. Following are some recommendations that businesses can implement today:

Starting Point: Talk to Your Employees

An important starting point is simply to talk to your employees about mental health issues and challenges. And while there are some great examples of businesses that have done so during the pandemic, there are a significant number that have done nothing. A study in the Harvard Business Review finds that almost 40% of workers say their employers have not even asked them how they are doing since the pandemic began. Those companies that believe their workers don’t want to talk about the issue are wrong. Around 6 in 10 workers are open to having a conversation with their manager about it, and 4 in 10 actually want to speak to them about it. 

For managers waiting to let HR talk to their employees about mental health, there is going to be a long wait. Workers list HR as the group they are the least willing to talk to about mental health, with peers and managers as those with whom they are the most willing. While mental health conversations can be uncomfortable for some managers, there are tools out there to help. 

The Michigan Medicine Depression Center has made free mental health tools available to supervisors and managers. “We want [employers] to know to help employees with more serious problems with depression in particular,” Parikh says. Teaching supervisors and managers how to properly talk to their employees and conduct periodic mental health checks is a critical part of the training. These check-ins should not be simple informal check-ins but rather formal one-on-one conversations during which the manager can empathize and provide assurance. 

Empathize and Be Supportive

Just as is the case with any relationship, managers will not be able to solve everything for an employee at once. Supportive listening is key. And with many managers and even those in senior management levels feeling mental stress as well, opening up and sharing your own challenges can be helpful. Employees will learn that they aren’t alone in dealing with the repercussions of the pandemic, and that their manager and senior leaders in the company also suffering its effects. As may turn out to be the case, managers and employees alike have many of the same stresses—elderly parents who live alone, kids who are at home and trying to e-learn, spouses who are also trying to work at home.

Regular Communications

Helping employees through their mental health issues is not a one-and-done effort. The company at large and managers need to exercise consistent and regular communications around the pandemic and its work-related effects. In the same Harvard Business Review article, 90% of people want weekly communications from their company—and 29% want daily communications. 

Managers who believe it is the responsibility of HR to manage these communications are wrong; employees expect and want their managers to speak regularly about the pandemic and how they are dealing with it. In fact, almost one-quarter of those who indicate their manager is ineffective at communicating are more likely to experience a decline in mental health issues.

Special Perks and Recognition

Employees appreciate the recognition that the pandemic makes it more difficult for them to do their jobs. Companies can empathize with them by providing them with special perks or recognition. These can come in various forms—whether an unexpected extended weekend (additional day off), company-paid accessories to make their workspace at home feel more comfortable and to be more effective (e.g., a work-from-home kit), virtual yoga and meditation classes, and virtual happy hours, discounts on takeout food delivery, among others. 

Informal Moments—Turning Them Virtual

Unfortunately, with many workers still working from home, informal conversations that take place over the watercooler, at breaks, in the hallway, and during drinks after work are no longer possible. Some workers are struggling as a result of losing these informal interactions that spark new ideas, energize teams, and spur innovation. In addition, nearly 2 in 10 are more likely to report a mental health decline as a result of their loss. 

In response, companies and managers need to seek opportunities for virtual informal interactions. However, one-third of workers indicate these aren’t happening. While these face-to-face interactions cannot be replicated during social distancing, there are ways to facilitate them virtually. Companies and managers need to ensure these happen on a consistent and regular basis.

Mental Health Resources

Talking about mental health stresses and challenges is one thing. Companies and managers need to know what is available for employees who need assistance—and they need to communicate what resources are available. Understanding what mental health support is available in their company health and wellbeing plans is crucial. 

Employees may not know everything that exists, and managers should study up and convey that information during the formal one-on-one meetings they have with their employees. The information should also be communicated repeatedly to employees via company communications. The same is true of mental health resources that fall outside of the company health and wellbeing plan; companies and managers need to have a list of those and communicate those to their employees. For companies proactively sharing this information, employees appreciate it: 60% are more likely to say their company and manager care about their wellbeing. 

In It for the Long Run

Those hoping the effects of the pandemic will be soon over are mistaken. Experts predict the implications will extend far into 2021 or even further. Work from home is the new normal for many professionals, with some companies extending work from home for the next year and indicating that some of their workforce will not return to their former offices (rather they will continue working from home). As a result, the challenges of mental health will continue to exist, and companies and managers must implement long-term strategies to help their employees overcome mental health challenges when they occur. 

Indeed, as has been widely disseminated during the pandemic, “We’re all in this together”—and this applies to companies, managers, and employees alike. 


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