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How to help your team members cope better with COVID stress

01 Feb, 2021 Mental health support

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.

The big picture

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:

  1. What is mental health? The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as “a state of wellbeing in which an individual realizes [fulfills] his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”
  2. What is behavioral health? While mental health focuses only on a person’s psychological state, behavioral health is a broader term that can include physical and mental struggles such as eating habits, exercise routines, and alcohol consumption.

COVID workforce impact

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:

  1. Young people are both more likely to have behavioral health issues—young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 had the highest prevalence of any mental illness—and are more willing to talk openly about psychological well-being and to seek assistance.
  2. Companies are recognizing the costs associated with not addressing employees’ mental health issues.
  3. The growing emphasis that companies place on controlling their self-insured healthcare costs points directly to investing in mental health interventions. That’s because mental health prospectively predicts the incidence of serious—and expensive—medical conditions such as diabetes, cancer, and coronary artery disease. What has effectively been a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to mental health in the workplace is becoming instead “do ask, do tell, let’s talk.”

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.

Employee mental health

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.

  • Organizational culture
  • Psychological and social support
  • Clear leadership and expectations
  • Civility and respect
  • Psychological demands
  • Growth and development
  • Recognition and rewards
  • Involvement and influence
  • Workload management
  • Engagement
  • Balance
  • Psychological protection
  • Protection of physical safety

Signs and symptoms of mental health problems

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:

  • Heart: increased heart rate, chest pain, blushing, hot and cold flushes
  • Breath: breathing rapidly (hyperventilation) or shortness of breath
  • Nervous system: sweating, dizziness, headaches, difficulty sleeping and nightmares
  • Gut: choking, dry mouth, stomach pain, diarrhoea
  • Total body: trembling, feeling tired or weak, muscle tension, feeling tense, wound up and edgy

Returntowork.net.au observes that early indications of someone at work developing a mental health problem include:

Behaviors

  • not getting things done
  • erratic behavior
  • emotional responses
  • complaints of lack of management support
  • fixation with fair treatment issues
  • complaining about workload
  • withdrawn from colleagues
  • reduced participation in work activities
  • increased consumption of caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes and/or sedatives
  • inability to concentrate
  • indecisive
  • difficulty with memory
  • loss of confidence
  • unplanned absences
  • conflict with team members/manager
  • use of grievance procedures
  • increased errors and/or accidents.

Physical / physiological signs

  • tired all the time
  • sick and run down
  • headaches
  • work-related musculo-skeletal complaints – injuries or disorders of the muscles, nerves, tendons, joints, cartilage, or spinal discs.
  • reduced reaction times
  • difficulty sleeping
  • weight loss or gain
  • dishevelled appearance
  • gastro-intestinal disorders
  • rashes

Support co-workers who are mentally struggling

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Morneau-Shepell-Mental-health-of-co-workers-graph-December-2020.jpg

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:

  • Openly communicating about mental health issues—and challenging negative stigmas.
  • Promoting available resources, such as employee assistance programs or online support groups.
  • Supporting workers with empathy, understanding, flexibility and tangible support.
  • Prioritizing personalized communication, and consistently providing public praise and private recognition.
  • Training managers on how to encourage, uplift and support workers—and how to spot signs of risk.

Advice for managers about giving support

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:

  • Empathize with workers’ unique circumstances. To provide the right professional support, managers need to know what their employees are juggling
  • Focus on output, not hours. It’s virtually impossible to track how employees are actually using their time. Instead, managers should focus on the quality of their work.
  • Expect wide differences in productivity among employees, for now. While some people find working from home energizing, many employees probably won’t be able to be as effective as they would be under normal conditions.

How to talk openly with a team member about their mental health – in an appropriate way

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:

  • “You’ve been looking a bit tired lately. Are you okay?”
  • “I’ve noticed you’ve quite often been turning up late to work recently. Are you dealing with extra problems? Can we offer some support for you?”

Showing respect to your team members about their mental health

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:

  • Be clear with yourself and your colleague that your intention for listening is to help.
  • Suspend judgement (of yourself and the other person) by noticing when an ‘approving/disapproving’ thought enters your mind. Let it pass or actively send it away.
  • Focus on your colleague and their experience. Don’t just immediately talk about your own experience, as many people are prone to do. They mistakenly think this might help to make conversation and bridge the empathy gap, but it is only about you!
  • Listen for overall themes, such as social isolation or financial concerns, and don’t get bogged down in the details, which can distract you from the big picture of what’s going on with them. Your role is to support them, rather than solve their problems, so you don’t need to know the specifics.
  • Listen with your eyes as well as your ears. Notice changes in facial expressions, which can give you some cues to what the person is actually feeling — which may be different from what they’re saying.
  • Recognize that when you start thinking to yourself, “What am I supposed to do?” you’ve stopped listening.
  • Let your colleague know if something is interfering with your ability to really listen, whether it’s an urgent email, your child demanding your attention, or your own stress — and offer to reschedule your conversation for a time when you can really attend to them.

What if they don’t want to talk?

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) recommendations:

  • Be prepared for the possibility that the person may not accept your support.
  • Remain calm if the person reacts in a negative way, e.g. denial, anger.
  • Try not to take it personally if they don’t want to talk.
  • Be aware that the person may be reluctant to talk about any mental health problems for various reasons.
  • Respect the person’s wishes if they do not wish to discuss non-work related issues.
  • If the person chooses not to talk, tell them that you are available to talk in the future if they wish to and encourage them to talk to someone else they trust instead.
  • You could also provide information for the person to take away and look at later.
  • You should also touch base with the person at a later time to see if they are more willing to talk.
Further advice from the MHFA if you are the person’s boss:
  • Ensure you first talk about the person’s strengths and how they are valued.
  • Emphasize your concern for the person’s wellbeing rather than their work performance and keep this as the focus of the discussion.
  • After raising your concerns with the person, ask if they would like to continue the conversation in the presence of a support person, eg an external advocate, co-worker.
  • If the person has a substance use problem, explain the effects that their substance use could have on co-workers and the workplace.
  • Point out the possible workplace consequences of substance use, e.g. loss of job if working while intoxicated.

8 in 10 PR pros feel massively more stress

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:

  • Over half of respondents reported their organization placed ‘a lot’ of value on communications during the emergency
  • 82% of respondents answered ‘yes’ to feeling a mental health impact of the Covid-19 pandemic
  • Nearly 50% had worked longer hours with one-third of practitioners working an extra 1-2 hours per day and over 15% working 5 or more extra hours a day
  • 28% had not taken any annual leave
  • Less than a quarter had accessed mental health support in the previous 6 months

What to do about longer days and more check-ins

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:

  • Employees sent 5% more emails a day.
  • Emails had 3% more recipients.
  • About 8% more emails were sent after business hours.

Prof. Raffaella Sadun, Prof. Jeffrey Polzer and colleagues also analyzed meeting invitations—the quantity, duration, and number of attendees—and observed that:

  • People attended 13% more meetings.
  • Each meeting was 12 minutes—or 20%—shorter, reducing the number of meeting hours by 12%, or 19 minutes.
  • The number of people invited to each meeting rose by two, or 14%.

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.”

Tips for dealing with long hours

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

Tips for strong team relationships

Here are some tips by Quantum Workplace for improving relationships within teams and with managers:

Image: Quantum Workplace

How to manage heavy workloads

Here are some helpful tips provided by Quantum Workplace to help managers and employees handle heavy workloads:

Image: Quantum Workplace

Helpful websites

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.

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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