Employee mental wellness was always a workplace concern, but never a priority. Elevated amidst the global pandemic, COVID-19 created a universal sense of uncertainty that would not subside. This is forcing employers to evaluate work-life balance like never before. Those who work from home may face additional challenges such as isolation from their friends and coworkers, increased childcare and home-schooling responsibilities, adjusting to distracted workspaces, and taking care of older and/or immunocompromised friends and family members1. These unique circumstances can amplify anxiety and stress for both employees and employers, which could result in severe mental health issues and unhealthy behavior.
The 3 Warning Signs You Can’t Ignore
Here are the signs to look for that may indicate that an employee is struggling with their mental wellness:
Sudden Discomfort or Panic.
The most overt signal of the 3 you can’t ignore can be noticed even if your workforce shifted to working from home (“WFH”). Managers can be on the lookout for direct reports exhibiting excessive nervousness, tension, difficulty breathing, a racing heartbeat, chest pains, or dizziness. A rapid urge of overwhelming anxiety and fear can overwhelm the senses in physically healthy people. Prolonged mental strain at home can be triggered by a momentary worry at work, and manifest physical symptoms.
A lack of productivity and quality is not necessarily a performance management issue; it can be a mental health concern. If an employee exhibits a sudden lack of motivation or is having difficulty concentrating in meetings (virtual or onsite), it’s not always “Zoom Fatigue”. Take note if a usually prompt employee now arrives late to meetings, has an indifferent attitude towards work, or exhibits social withdrawal. If they display a significant lack of availability, call in sick more often than before, or do not turn on their video again that day, it is important to ask questions instead of brushing them off2,3.
Irritability or Low Tolerance of others.
Dramatic changes in an employee’s mood and social interactions can signal underlying mental health issues. While these behavioral changes are more noticeable in person, they can also be recognized over video chat. Employees can be more conscious of their colleagues displaying unusual behaviors, such as short temper, dismissal of others, or repeating negative thoughts2,3. In these cases, outward aggression is more likely, and intervention most needed.
“Everyone is stressed”
“No one sleeps 8 hours”
“Who isn’t irritable right now?!”
Yeah we get it, a lot going on. So, changes in work style and interpersonal behavior can be difficult to notice. Easier when everyone is in on-site, harder when people WFH. Additionally, though the stigma of mental illness is slowly dissolving, many employees feel uncomfortable addressing their mental health with their employers1. Consequently, employee mental stress concerns often go unrecognized and unaddressed. But they don’t go away. Inevitably, compound stress leads to bigger problems for the employee and organization.
What can Leaders do?
- Don’t rely on people to self-report. Encourage managers and employees to regularly check in with their direct reports and coworkers, even if they don’t see any of the poor mental wellness signs. For all the gripes, video calls make it easy and convenient to regularly check in with your direct reports and coworkers3. Two-way communication is essential to build trust and make employees feel more comfortable to discuss their mental health. It is important to ask direct questions such as: “How are you managing with the workload while working from home? Do you need any additional support with anything?”1. These check-ins can be informal. Try one at the beginning of a meeting. Or they can be more formal such as scheduled, individualized check-ins3. The point is to regularly monitor your teammates and ensure that everyone is doing well.
- Compassionate communication. Talking about mental wellness can be normalized. Remember when women didn’t talk about pregnancy? Or when people didn’t talk about their lactose intolerance? It’s normal now because social norms can and do change. Employees can feel comfortable discussing their struggles and feelings with their managers. Managers can act as role models for their direct reports by speaking openly about their own mental state. People feel better to express themselves when they have the safe space to discuss their emotions, without having to conceal any mental health concerns they may be experiencing3. It also helps to create awareness that significant changes in team member’s work or social interactions may be a sign that a person is overwhelmed1. By being aware of the signs to look for, managers can take the extra initiative to show compassion to their direct reports, which has a profound effect on an individual struggling. One of only FOUR universal traits of feeling cared for, specifically “loved”, occurred when “someone shows compassion toward them in difficult times”4. And we are in difficult times! Another had to do with pets, and you don’t have enough labradoodles to take that route. So be compassionate.
- Don’t rely on coworkers. While it is important to frequently check in with your team, it is more beneficial to collect data and measure your employees’ mental wellness confidentially (i.e. surveys). Collecting data digitally allows you to measure a greater number of employees at once and improves the reliability of the information that you collect. As opposed to relying on in-person communication, collecting wellness opinions online or by SMS text is significantly cheaper and faster. It also reduces the potential for human bias and error from the information collected. To help measure the mental wellness of your workforce, Retensa offers a free employee mental wellness survey that captures and reports on the current state of employees’ mental health. A targeted wellness survey allows you to surface the root causes of any anxiety your employees experience. It can also reveal unrecognized sources of concern among staff. Identifying the root causes of stress allows leaders to prioritize the appropriate issues. Otherwise, they (and you) are just guessing.
- Be transparent. The pandemic placed people in an unparalleled state of uncertainty. Many don’t know how much longer they will work from home or even if they’ll have a job. Having to live week by week, or even day by day, and not knowing if you, a spouse, parent or child will be laid off tomorrow is unbearable. Leadership and HR professionals will be best served to regularly communicate job security and organizational change and the impact any change may make on their employees3. Keeping employees informed as your organizational situation develops will alleviate some anxiety your employees magnify from the unknown. Transparency ensures safe passage for the healthy dialogue on how to navigate one’s feelings.
- Provide tips and resources. Leadership can lead by sharing techniques on how to stay calm, present, and focused during these uncertain times. These can be informal and empathetic videos from leaders speaking about the challenges that they understand people may be going through. Coworkers can encourage each other to take care of their physical self as this can help reduce stress and sustain their mental wellness. These can be simple suggestions: take an exercise break during the day, drinking twice the water as usual (you probably need it), meditation, an all healthy foods or sugar-free week (you definitely need that). For those working from home, block time for their families, ensure that their family members have balance. If an employee’s family is mentally healthy, that employee has a better support system for their own mental wellness3. Companies can also offer digital mental wellness guides to refer to when employees grapple with their mental state. Repeat the location and access to these resources often, so all are easy to find1. Providing mental health tools/guides also helps normalize conversations around mental health and emotional wellbeing. Then, focus shifts from the problem to the solution to reinforce the support that they need.
Your employees may not be doing well. If you see your direct report or coworkers exhibiting mood swings or changes in behavior, don’t dismiss it. That may be a mental health concern. While it is harder to notice these signs when a workforce is WFH, the key is to communicate and encourage dialogue. Reach out to teammates to simply ask “How are you doing with everything”. That question alone encourages them to share the influencing elements in their life. The best (fastest, cheapest, and most reliable) way to diagnose your organization’s mental wellness is to leverage survey technology and digital tools, especially a mental health survey. Broadcast mental wellness tools/tips/guides for your employees to use while addressing any mental health concerns. This will help sustain your employees’ mental wellness right now. And as we persevere, staff will value how leadership supported them in their most challenging time.
(1) Koss, Stephen. “How Leaders Can Protect Employee Wellbeing during COVID-19.” EY, EY, 22 May 2020, https://www.ey.com/en_gl/workforce/how-leaders-can-protect-employee-wellbeing-during-covid-19.
(2) How to Spot the Signs: Mental Illness at Work. (2020, September 11). Retrieved from https://engagedhr.com/how-to-spot-the-signs-mental-illness-at-work
(3) Grensing-Pophal, Lin. “Pandemic Takes a Toll on Employees’ Emotional Well-Being.” SHRM Magazine, SHRM, 25 Apr. 2020, https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/benefits/pages/pandemic-takes-a-toll-on-employees-emotional-well-being.aspx.
(4) Saeideh Heshmati, Zita Oravecz, Sarah Pressman, et. al. “What does it mean to feel loved: Cultural consensus and individual differences in felt love” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 11 August 2017 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0265407517724600