COVID-19’s ongoing societal strains are taking a heavy emotional toll on workers everywhere. New research from Total Brain suggests American workers are facing serious mental health challenges which companies must take active steps to mitigate.
— By Jeremiah Prince
Between the volatile political climate, the threat of COVID-19, and the emotional isolation associated with social distancing, 2020 was a perfect storm for causing emotional harm to large portions of the population. Many held out hope that 2021 would be a fresh start, but instead organizations must deal a pandemic-era continuation of conditions that hold workers in crisis. Thus, it has never been more important to support the emotional wellness of employees.
The question, of course, is how to support mental health in worker populations that are increasingly diverse. Every employee brings with them their own experiences, beliefs and perspectives, which make them a valuable contributor to a productive team. However, these unique psychological elements also diversify employees’ response to loss, fear and pressure.
In order for businesses to provide appropriate support, firms need to work to understand the problems employees are facing, actively mitigate the effects, and then institute ongoing monitoring of employee health to ensure workers remain supported and at their most productive.
Understanding the Problem
The first step is to get a sense of what employees within the organization are working to emotionally overcome. There are many different internal factors that add up to form a person’s emotional well-being. These factors interact with each other and with external stimuli in complicated ways, but learning a few precise terms can demystify much of the process for organizational leaders and frontline managers.
Rather than surveying the full framework, there are four factors organizations will want to watch out for right now and over the next few months. They are stress, anxiety, depressive mood and negativity. Each will be reviewed briefly with an eye to their organizational impact.
Stress is the reaction of the mind and body to an external stressor. This could be a looming work deadline or financial strain, and it may be present at any time. However, the fear of COVID-19 adds another layer of extra stress on top of normal external factors, exacerbating the risk of stress accelerating into anxiety and depression.
Anxiety is the next level, a manifestation of a person’s emotional reaction to their own persistent stress. It is closely correlated with the third factor to monitor – depression.
Starting with depressive moods, organizations may notice employees exhibiting higher than normal instances of sadness, loneliness, anger, grief and frustration. While brief depressive and anxious states are normal, managers will want to watch to see if it appears to persist for days or weeks, indicating an accelerating condition.
Finally, managers may want to watch for a rise in negativity. Negativity is a complex combination of biases and tendencies. Intuitively, it refers to a person’s relative likelihood to see the downside of things, and many “2020 Sucks!” memes have leaned into this emotional state. However, sarcasm aside, organizations will want to watch for negativity outbreaks as they can be very contagious among members of a group or team and deeply impact productivity, morale, and engagement.
Mitigating the Effects
Unfortunately, there are no simple, surefire solutions to these problems. Their symptoms and effective treatments differ by age, gender, and even individual. However, there are a few best practices organizations can lean on to help mitigate the stress and stress-related mood effects of the coronavirus.
In general, the most effective way to combat mental health issues is to catch them early. If the workplace is seen as an environment where employees can express their feelings and be heard, people will acknowledge their own painful emotions. When that happens, stressors can be identified and resolved. Failing that, just talking about these feelings can often help alleviate them, perhaps by adding conversational check-ins to otherwise “strictly business” operational meetings.
In times like these, employees need more attention and support than they ever have before.
If an employee needs to reduce their stress or anxiety, most of the old cliches really do work. Exercising within one’s level of comfort, drinking less coffee, writing down stressors, talking with friends and family, and deep breathing are all excellent ways of reducing stress and anxiety. Employees should be encouraged by their managers and co-workers to try these and other common techniques to see what works best for them.
It is important to ask a suffering employee what they need. Some people need conversation and attention to help them recover emotionally, while others fare better with time alone, working or meditating. If the response is tailored to the needs of the individual, it will be much more effective, and managers should be encouraged to lean on organizational employee health resources, such as help lines or anonymous counsellors, to provide consistent support for their team members.
Monitoring the Team’s Mental Wellness
Once the organization is aware of and actively trying to mitigate the negative mental health states which may be impacting their team members, the final step is ongoing monitoring. Certain services like Total Brain allow individuals to monitor their own emotional state and mental capacity day to day. Total Brain also provides a company-wide system that allows a company to identify employees who may need additional resources to operate at their full potential.
While employees may be skeptical of such systems, they provide key advantages. For example, being able to benchmark the mental health of a team can guide management in determining whether they are facing normal amounts of strain for their level and industry, or dealing with an exceptional situation.
Thus, in addition to private organizational insights, services like Total Brain offer a national Mental Health Index that tracks trends in a variety of brain capacities and emotional factors in American workers. They can offer a third-party data point to use as conversation and a planning metric when monitoring employee mental health.
In times like these, employees need more attention and support than they ever have before. By working to understand the problems employees are facing, actively attempt to mitigate the effects, and institute ongoing monitoring of employee health, firms can provide the appropriate support to ensure workers at all levels remain supported and at their most productive.