COVID-19 and Mental Health in the Workplace

The coronavirus pandemic has upended life as we know it. The lack of physical contact with our friends and loved ones, loss of employment and pay cuts, and the death of loved ones - all of which marked the health crisis - have heightened stress for millions of Americans. As many businesses reopen and employees return to work, these psychosocial risks pose serious health concerns for workers and a limiting factor for a business’ bottom line.

In these tumultuous times, employees are inundated with a plethora of concerns that pose a threat to their physical and mental wellbeing. For those returning to work, they are faced with new realities of working from home, uncertain employment, lack of physical contact with co-workers, and the unending fear of contracting the virus at work. Essential workers, on the other hand, who have remained on the job have had their mental wellbeing strained by the physical disconnection from their families and the constant fear of contracting the infection.

A recent PwC pulse survey identified the fear of contracting COVID-19 in the workplace as the main source of stress for many workers. Workers in jobs that require frequent contact with the public and high-density work environments are worried about their chances of getting the virus while at work. A lack of personal protective equipment for such workers and ill-defined policies to limit their exposure will further increase their anxiety.

This concern is even worse for employees with chronic diseases - who represent the most at-risk group of severe COVID-19 disease.

People who work from home may not have as much fear of contagion but may be overwhelmed by the stress that comes from remote work. Such employees may have to grapple with maintaining work-life balance amid home-related activities. Working from home may blur the boundaries between work and family responsibilities, as employees struggle with more household chores and caregiving duties, including home-schooling and childcare. This hassle puts additional strain on workers’ wellbeing and productivity.

For both groups of employees, workload and work-schedule have changed to make up for the contracted workforce and the financial downturn employers faced during the lockdown. Workers now take on more responsibilities, work for longer hours or more shifts, or have fewer days off to cope with the increased workload. These changes set employees up for a mental breakdown as the risk of absenteeism, burnout, anxiety, and depression would shoot up consequently.

Adding to these stressors is the uncertainty about the future of one’s employment. Businesses and employers are still cutting jobs and offering pay cuts. For instance, American Airlines recently announced plans to cut more than 9,000 jobs soon, just as United Airlines cuts about 13,000 jobs following the expiration of federal aid to the airline industry. This uncertainty will inevitably dampen employee motivation and heighten stress and anxiety for workers. Further, uncertainty about job replacement in these unprecedented times will take its toll on workers’ productivity. 

These work-related stressors inevitably impede employee productivity, which, in turn, may blunt overall business success. However, there are measures employers can adopt to avoid or minimize the mental health risks of the pandemic in the workplace.

Effective Communication

The first step in addressing the mental health impact of the coronavirus pandemic on workers is to open communication channels to ensure workers receive information on all key issues. From changes to work responsibilities to the future of their employment, employers should provide details to workers on all aspects of their work. Furthermore, employers should clearly define tasks and responsibilities with realistic deadlines that factor in workers’ new workload and work-pace.

Further, employers, HR, and supervisors should routinely check in with employees about all aspects of work and create a safe environment where workers and supervisors can discuss their concerns. Businesses should also provide a well-defined policy on the prevention of coronavirus spread in the office space and protocols to follow when an employee test positive for the virus.

Communication between employees also plays a pivotal role in enhancing employee wellbeing during these times of social distancing. With physical modifications made to curb contagion in the workplace, employees may find themselves working in isolated cubicles or partitioned workstations. This lack of physical interaction could blunt employee wellbeing and performance. Employers should consider creating peer groups or virtual platforms to allow workers to interact during break hours. Employers should also double down on the need to interact with other coworkers during break hours to help them take the edge off.

The Right Working Environment and Equipment

These are unprecedented times, and the work environment has to adapt to the change. Workers are concerned about their risk of getting infected in the workplace, and inadequate workplace changes to address this risk would rev up employee stress levels and slow down productivity.

Employers should remodel the workplace to meet this demand for workplace safety. Open workspaces should be split-up to allow workers to work in single workspaces or separate workstations by at least 2 meters. Also, supervisors should provide handwashing and sanitizing equipment at strategic locations in the office space.

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Employers may also offer hybrid work schedules for employees to reduce their contact with other people. One of most employees’ fear is getting infected while on public transportation to work, and one way to address this is by revising work arrangements to allow hybrid work patterns. Additionally, employers may need to revise work schedules, including starting/finishing times and enough days off between shifts.

As the workforce shortage may lead to employees handling more tasks, employers should redistribute the work assignments taking into consideration their capacities and strengths. Furthermore, work tasks should be distributed to ensure workers deal with only an appropriate amount of work per time. Supervisors should also ensure they provide the right tools, technology, and resources for workers to complete these tasks.

Access to Mental Health Care

Employees need a lot of psychological support working in these unparalleled times. HR leaders and supervisors should integrate psychological support initiatives into their workplace coronavirus policy as workers return to work. This is especially important for workers who have pre-existing mental health, who may have more difficulties coping with the new realities.

Managers and supervisors should also provide mental health resources and tools such as online relaxation classes and counseling sessions to help employees better able to deal with the “new normal.” Managers should also create a system or feedback loop that monitors employees for stress and burnout to identify and provide support for at-risk employees.

Employers should also increase employee engagement with their Employer Assistance Program (EAP). EAPs should expand its services to include stress-management tools, including mindfulness and resilience training. EAP vendors should also provide regular data on the number of employees accessing the program and the concerns and issues raised.

Managers should also improve access to timely and affordable mental health services via the EAPs for employees that have developed mental health challenges as a result of the health crisis.

Bottom Line

The coronavirus pandemic has brought with it a lot of uncertainties and challenges. As a result, many employees return to work greeted by pandemic-induced changes that may impair their wellbeing and productivity. Even as the pandemic shows no end in sight, an effective plan for business recovery is to ensure workers remain highly productive and efficient, and at the core of this is providing adequate mental health support for workers.