Why employee mental health is especially critical today — and what managers can do about it

By Robert Half on 5 October 2020

Continued stress has long been an impediment to a healthy workplace, especially when it leads to burnout — increased mental detachment from the job and reduced effectiveness.

A recent international survey of 1,500 executives conducted by Robert Half found that 37% of employers are aware that their employees are managing heavy workloads and are on the brink of burn-out because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, 42% of companies surveyed have started offering mental health resources and 32% general wellness programs to assist their employees.

The anxiety and uncertainty associated with the ongoing pandemic is evidently gnawing away at mental wellbeing for many managers and employees. New stressors for home-based workers often include larger workloads due to leaner staffing, not being able to interact with colleagues in person and the challenge of caring for children or elders during the workday.

To gain an employee perspective, Robert Half also recently polled working professionals during the first weeks of the pandemic, 37% of whom indicated they are working longer hours than pre-COVID-19. Tellingly, only 10% feel the pandemic has led to closer relationships with colleagues. What’s more, even fewer (8%) of respondents indicated that they feel closer to their manager because of COVID-19.

So, there’s clearly much work to be done in order to maintain mental health and wellbeing amid the current crisis. As managers play a crucial role in determining how well their organisations navigate the pandemic, ahead of World Mental Health Day on October 10th, here are some suggestions to help you. They include insights from Nic Marks, a leading London-based statistician, wellbeing expert and founder of Friday Pulse.

Approach wellbeing and mental health thoughtfully

Mental health has for too long been a taboo topic in the workplace. Part of this is because, for some, mental health denotes mental illness. And, as Marks puts it, “No one wants to be seen as a problem to be ‘fixed.’”

Another reason mental health isn’t often broached at work is that employers just haven’t seen it as their responsibility or concern. They haven’t realised why employee wellbeing should be important to them.

The COVID-19 economy and remote work have upped the ante today, however. Managers who promote healthy discussions around employee wellbeing and offer a willing ear to staff who are having a hard time dealing with the new frustrations and stresses can help employees avoid the burnout that is often a result. By being empathetic, you can persuade employees to come forward and share their stories about what they are going through on the job. Increasing your understanding of issues that are affecting them can lead you toward possible solutions. Many managers have recently shown a willingness to share their own stories despite worries from some that this could make them appear vulnerable. The payoff is high, however, because, feeling the support and empathy, more employees allow themselves to open up.

What should be of particular concern to employers is that your best people may be those most susceptible to burnout. “It is clear that burnout especially occurs in people who are engaged in their work,” Marks says. “They are willing to go the extra mile and, in doing so, actually go an extra hundred miles and totally overload themselves. People who don’t care about their work just don’t put in that extra discretionary effort that would tip them over the edge.”

Communicate 2-3 times more often

As indicated by the survey results mentioned earlier, many businesses are prioritising employee mental health and wellbeing programs because of the pandemic.

Many of these programs are not a cure-all, though, according to Marks. “Many employee wellbeing programs are more opportunities for self-care, such as mindfulness courses or counseling help lines. These are helpful, and companies are right to pursue them, but many people under pressure don’t have the time to commit to such self-care initiatives.”

That’s where the support of their managers comes in. Talking regularly with your team is your most powerful tool for reducing stress and burnout. Effective communication has always been a key management skill, but it’s a pivotal responsibility when employees are no longer physically together in a central location. A good rule of thumb is to talk one-on-one or to small groups of employees 2-3 times more than you would in an office.

Marks says, “At Friday Pulse, we recommend organisations systematically ask every employee how they are feeling as often as every week,” Marks adds. “Doing this across the whole business ensures that there are fewer poorly managed teams as the scores show up quickly, and senior leaders can step in to offer targeted support where it most needed.”

When talking with your team, try to listen carefully to get an authentic sense of how they are feeling and coping with new stressors — a limit on socialising with others, fewer outlets for rest and relaxation, and virtual schooling, for example. Stress can also come from your staff seeing friends and family members being laid off, which can easily lead to feelings of job insecurity of their own.

You may have to communicate virtually, of course. Use video calls whenever feasible. It’s surprisingly therapeutic for team members to see each other talking, strategising, smiling and laughing when so many of us are isolated.

Quick, maybe 15-minute group check-in calls on a weekly basis that are separate from scheduled business meetings are something staff are likely to look forward to. But don’t crowd too many people into these calls. “If these meetings include more than four or five people, the more introverted will not feel able to share,” Marks notes. Too many people on a call can also encourage side conversations that are distracting and confusing.

Give them workload relief

“Our data shows that work-life balance has deteriorated significantly across our client base,” Marks says. “Before the pandemic, the average score on our 0-100 scale was 72, but it has recently dropped to 67.

And these work-life balance scores have remained suppressed since March. This suggests that this is an ongoing issue with new ways of working rather than a temporary setback.”

Work-life imbalances often reflect increased stress — and even burnout. Since it can help managers to know the factors that bring employees to this point, we asked workers who said they were burned out in a September 2020 Robert Half U.S. survey what the reasons were. Their top response (30%) was heavier workloads. This beat out even the inability to separate work and personal life when working remotely (19%) and fewer resources and smaller budgets (14%). Employers polled agreed even more strongly: Staff members managing heavy workloads and on the brink of burnout was the top concern of 47% of senior managers when asked about retention challenges.

People having too much work to get through the day is at least partly the result of staff cuts companies have had to make because of the pandemic’s economic effects. Even if you are not in a position to hire additional workers at this point, you can take some of the pressure off your employees by bringing in skilled temporary professionals to help out in the most bottlenecked areas.

You can also give your team more flexibility by suggesting windowed working. This simply means allowing them to break down their workday into smaller units of time, or “windows,” separated by personal breaks.

Most of these units are likely to be taken during normal working hours, but some can occur before or after them depending on an employee’s personal preference.

In addition, encouraging staff to take the time off they’ve earned, even at a time when vacation travel is very limited, can allow them to simply take it easy for a while, the ultimate remedy for stress and burnout.

How managers can supplement wellness programs

  • Understand that your involvement is critical.
  • Schedule brief video calls with your team on a weekly basis just to see how people are dealing with new work arrangements and other pressures.
  • Brainstorm ideas for reducing stress and burnout.
  • Be empathetic: How is your team feeling and coping with new stressors?
  • Also hold frequent one-on-one calls with team members.
  • Bring in skilled temporary professionals to relieve bottlenecks.
  • Suggest windowed working.
  • Encourage your team to take earned time off.

Your efforts to create a workplace conducive to mental well-being will not only benefit your employees but also your business. By doing so, Marks estimates companies can yield a five-fold return on investment. “The catch,” he says, “is you have to invest time and effort, not just money.”

For further advice on the ongoing impact of COVID-19 and remote working, contact us today.

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