In your role as a manager, supervisor, team leader, or as a team mate, you may not be sure how you can best help your team during the COVID-19 virus – to understand the overall trend of the pandemic around the world, the mental health impact on individuals in your team, and what to do to support them.
That darned virus is still around, causing havoc in our lives. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted almost everyone on this planet to some extent. When will the pandemic end? Epidemiologists estimate that our lives will trend towards normal from the second half of 2021 after vaccines have immunized many people, according to a 2021 McKinsey report. And a McKinsey chart from January 2021 estimates that “high-risk Americans could all be vaccinated by mid-2021.” However, emerging strains of the virus, and some public hesitancy about being vaccinated, plus patchy distribution of vaccines, may delay this estimated timeline. According to one Australian health expert quoted in the New York Times on 2 February 2021, “Europe and the United States put too much faith in the vaccines, failing to recognize that their impact on transmission would be glacial, not instant.”
Informed people are coming to that view: reporter Sam Baker commented in the Axios news website in early February 2021 that “Mutated versions of the coronavirus threaten to prolong the pandemic, perhaps for years — killing more people and deepening the global economic crisis in the process.” And the Singapore Education Minister is quoted in the Wall Street Journal on 27 January 2021, ““It may take four to five years before we finally see the end of the pandemic and the start of a post-COVID normal.”
In the meantime, the virus has caused direct or indirect extra stress to people everywhere. The mental health toll is shocking. In mid-2020, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 41% of US adults reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition, including symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder (31%). Also, a national employer survey by McKinsey in April 2020 found that behavioral health is a major concern. (Around 77% of employers in the survey ‘were concerned’ (39%) or ‘very concerned’ (38%) about the mental health of their workforce.
Two important questions:
COVID-19 is forcing changes in many areas of our life. Remote/online is becoming the new standard in education, work and health. People can continue attending medical appointments in person, or a growing number can attend a telecare online appointment with their physician. Telecare (Zoom/video) appointments are increasingly useful for follow-up with physicians. Patients can also meet in person with a mental health counselor, or do this online. These changes to online options are here to stay, according to the World Economic Forum.
Access to mental health resources and attitudes about mental health are almost certainly poised to improve, according to Stanford University experts Prof Jeffrey Pfeffer and Prof Leanne Williams, writing a December 2020 McKinsey article, “Mental health in the workplace: The coming revolution.” They said:
Many risk factors for mental health may be present in the working environment. Most risks relate to interactions between type of work, the organizational and managerial environment, the skills and competencies of employees, and the support available for employees to carry out their work. For example, a person may have the skills to complete tasks, but they may have too few resources to do what is required, or you can see there are unsupportive managerial or organizational practices in place.
Pre-existing mental health challenges have worsened from the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. Based on analysis by McKinsey, COVID-19 could result in a potential 50% increase in the occurrence of behavioral health conditions.
Nevertheless, “There is a coming revolution in how companies (and public-policy makers) think about, talk about, and cope with all forms of mental health issues,” Pfeffer & Williams believe.
Research shows that causes of workplace stress such as long hours, economic insecurity, work–family conflict, and high job demands coupled with low job control are harmful to health. Overall, they cost the United States about 120,000 unnecessary deaths annually.
A McKinsey survey of 1,000 employers found 90% reported that the COVID-19 crisis was affecting the behavioral health and often the productivity of their workforce. Gallup reported that almost half of US workers were concerned about one or more of four possible job setbacks—reduced hours, reduced benefits, layoffs, or wage cuts.
Employee mental health is a top-level, business-survival issue that company leaders should be addressing. Paula Allen, Morneau Shepell’s senior VP of research, analytics and innovation, quoted in PR Daily in September 2020:
It has never been clearer that employers’ support for mental health and well-being is essential for business productivity. Morneau Shepell’s Mental Health Index shows that since the pandemic, the decline in the mental health of employed people has been unprecedented, and we have seen a corresponding decline in the ability to focus and be productive, given the impact of emotions.
The good news is that mental health isn’t quite the taboo subject now that it has traditionally been. For instance, Pfeffer & Williams quoted a 2019 survey of a random sample of US employees that found “employees were more likely to seek help with stress, anxiety, and depression now than they were five years ago.” Nevertheless, the survey found that 20% of respondents feared they would harm their careers if their employers found out, and 20% worried that they didn’t have time to get help.
If you have no framework by which to measure or gauge such things, Ragan Wellness lists 13 factors that affect mental health at every company.
According to the Mental Health & Wellbeing Guide of May 2020, from Cropley Communication, anxiety is the most common mental health condition in many countries.
On average, one in four people will experience an anxiety condition in their life. Anxiety is more than just feeling stressed or worried. While stress and anxious feelings are a common response to pressure, they usually pass once the stressful situation has passed, or ‘stressor’ is removed. Anxiety is when these anxious feelings are ongoing and exist without any particular reason or cause. It’s a serious condition that makes it hard for a person to cope with daily life. We all feel anxious from time to time, but for a person experiencing anxiety, these feelings cannot be easily controlled.
There are various ways anxiety shows as physical symptoms:
Physical / physiological signs
Morneau Shepell, a provider of technology-enabled HR services, regularly surveys the same sample of 11,000 workers in the USA, UK, Canada and Australia. In the above Morneau Shepell graph, the latest figures, for December 2020, show that more than one-third of respondents report being concerned about a co-worker’s mental health. In addition, 30-39% of supervisors agree that they have concerns about the mental health of their employees. What can we do to help these team members?
Paula Allen of Morneau Shepell, says there are simple steps to help reduce team members’ anxiety during ongoing COVID-19 distress. She says workers who perceive their employers as supporting their mental health, do much better than the population overall. She recommends employers to meaningfully support employees’ mental well-being by:
The pandemic workforce has created a significant challenge for managers, Raffaella Sadun, Professor of Business Administration in the Harvard Business School Strategy Unit, says. She offers three pieces of advice to leaders of remote workforces:
Whether you are a boss or a fellow team member, paying attention to possible mental health problems among colleagues is important. Your workplace should be an open, inclusive, and safe environment in which people are comfortable to come to work.
In the past, talking about mental health could feel difficult, and even distressing. And therefore, according to Deborah Riegel in the Harvard Business Review of November 2020, the subject creates a vicious cycle — the less people talk about it at work (even when they know they and others are struggling), the more the stigma grows when it is raised. To break this cycle, you need to get your manager to start a conversation about how your team members are really doing — without going beyond what is reasonable.
It starts with talking about the health of team members overall. If one of them had damaged a shoulder muscle while playing sport, you wouldn’t hesitate to ask them about their recovery. So, treat mental health the same way.
I wouldn’t suggest saying something as clumsy as, “How is your mental health these days?” I would open the comments with something like, “How are you feeling from these COVID stresses we are all facing?” and following up with a question like, “If you are feeling the strain, what are you able to do to get on top of it? This must be causing some pressure on your mental wellbeing (or equilibrium)?” Other suggested conversation starters:
Riegal recommends making sure the individual doesn’t think you perceive them as ‘broken’ – as not capable or credible. Approach your colleagues with the mindset of respect – that they are resourceful, able, and may need your support but not necessarily solutions. Above all, be sure to really listen without judging the other person or projecting your own experiences onto them. Opening up an honest discussion about mental health may be just what your team members need right now.
If you want to be part of an environment where your colleagues feel heard, respected, and cared for, here’s how to do it, Riegal says:
Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) recommendations:
Communicating to help fellow employees cope with the impact of the pandemic is a vital role for comms pros. However, as I have noted in another article, professional communication is already a highly stressful occupation itself at the best of times. Comms pros are now feeling even more pressure in the current health environment. US surveys consistently place it in the top 10 most stressful occupations. And the pandemic has added more stress. A survey conducted for the UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations in August 2020 found:
A 2020 study of 3 million people in 16 cities around the world in the early weeks of the pandemic confirmed what many work-from-home employees already know – their days are getting longer and busier. The team from the Harvard Business School compared the frequency and timing of emails sent within and outside organizations 8 weeks before the start of pandemic-related lockdowns and 8 weeks after. On average, they found:
Prof. Raffaella Sadun, Prof. Jeffrey Polzer and colleagues also analyzed meeting invitations—the quantity, duration, and number of attendees—and observed that:
Perhaps most striking: As researchers compared the time when people started sending emails and attending meetings each day and when they ended, they saw that the average workday lasted 8% longer, an extra 48 minutes. While it’s unlikely that employees worked continuously during that period, Sadun suspects that employees adopted more fluid schedules to accommodate interruptions from, say, a child struggling with virtual learning or a sick family member.
“There is a general sense that we never stop being in front of Zoom or interacting,” Sadun says. “It’s very taxing, to be honest.”
Quantum Workplace give several handy tips to managers and employees in their ebook, “Stress Management in the Workplace” about managing long hours, as in the above image.
Many employees, especially comms pros, work more than the typical 8-hour work day. Increased workload or inadequate staffing may result in more hours spent working. Long work hours tend to be more stressful and lead to physical, mental, and emotional distress. This leaves employees feeling fatigued, less productive, and less likely to make healthy lifestyle choices.
Image: Quantum Workplace
Here are some tips by Quantum Workplace for improving relationships within teams and with managers:
Image: Quantum Workplace
Here are some helpful tips provided by Quantum Workplace to help managers and employees handle heavy workloads:
Image: Quantum Workplace
A couple of extremely helpful Australian websites containing universally applicable, practical advice on dealing with workplace mental issues resulting from COVID-19 are:
Image at top of page by Niaid Irf published in the National Geographic email newsletter on 27 January 2021. It shows a colorized microscope image of a dying cell (green) infected with the COVID-19 virus (blue) obtained from a patient.
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Putting on a brave face. Many people are reluctant to reveal they need mental health counseling, so they pretend they