Employers brace for COVID’s mental health fallout as workers return

Arianne Cohen, Bloomberg News

From casual Fridays to after-work drinks, those weekly rituals once taken for granted are returning as Americans head back to the office. And while masks, plexiglass and empty conference rooms will alter the cubescape, employers are nevertheless invested in getting things back to normal—or at least as normal as possible.

But that won’t be easy. COVID-19’s damage may be felt in the workplace long after the disease has receded. That’s thanks to the mental and emotional toll the pandemic has taken on employees who, like everyone else, have spent the past year living in fear, isolation and sorrow. 

“We’re seeing pretty alarming numbers,” said Vaile Wright, senior director of healthcare innovation at the American Psychological Association (APA), who oversees its Stress in America survey. “People’s bodies and minds just aren’t in quite the fit place they were in a year ago.”

APA data shows extensive markers of unhealthy coping—including disrupted sleep, increased drinking and low physical activity. Moreover, some 61 per cent of adults are reporting undesired weight gain or loss—though mostly the former, with a typical increase of 15 pounds. “All the research coming out now is really aligned,” Wright said. “Rates of depression, anxiety, substance use and suicidality have all increased.”

To understand what this will mean for workplaces, it may help to understand what healthy coping looks like.

Generally, the APA and other experts encourage healthful eating, sleep and exercise, with abundant social connections, all of which combines to build a “strong foundation” that allows people to withstand everyday pressure—like that encountered in the office. This foundation typically depends on routines: a consistent bedtime and wake time, regular exercise and meal times.

For many, the pandemic has managed to blow all this up.

“We’re hearing, both from the data and anecdotally, that people just aren’t able to do those things,” said Wright. “Someone who isn’t coping effectively may be less present, even when they are ‘at work,’ and they’re more likely to not be as productive, to not show up—and to quit.”

And it’s not just the office where this malaise is manifesting itself. According to Professor Lawrence Katz, an economist at Harvard University, it’s on full display in classrooms, where he sees undergraduates performing in a different gear than usual.

“They want plain vanilla—you know, the sort of generic courses where you just do exams and don’t have to do anything much extra,” Katz said. Junior seminars that typically feature more expansive projects have seen enrollments drop by half, he said. “They seem to be less willing to do challenging things,” Katz said.

For employees, this dynamic could translate into lower work capacity than pre-pandemic times—making addressing it an economic imperative for companies.

So how should managers cope with this diminished ability to cope?

Cathleen Swody, an organizational psychologist at the consulting firm Thrive Leadership, said bosses need to be cognizant that many employees are—for the first time in their lives—facing a bout of overeating, anxiety, depression or even substance use.

“Know that it’s going to vary person-to-person, depending on their personal circumstances and pandemic experiences,” she said. “Some will be eager to come back to the office and [be] right back at it, and others will have a lot of resistance to it because they’re just not up for it.”

Parents may be in for a particularly rough time.

“I am always surprised by how many working parents will bring up that they’re physically in a really bad place, as well as their mental health—the guilt, the overwhelm and the stress,” said Daisy Dowling, a consultant and author of the upcoming book, “Workparent.”

“Any time they would spend attending to their health is spent attending to the health and safety of their children,” she said.

Wright, Swody and Dowling all agree that as workers come back, employers must make access to wellness resources easy. Companies should subsidize online exercise classes, gym memberships and mental health programs. These include stress management, therapists and employee assistance programs. New strategies unique to the pandemic can include outdoor video chats and “walk-and-talks” with mental health professionals.

However, such offerings may go unused if managers don’t explicitly normalize their use during the workday. This, the experts said, is a critical consideration for staff whose mornings and evenings are occupied with obligations such as elder or child care. 

For global companies, outfitting workers with additional physical and mental health resources can be complex, but Wright notes “employers have more power than they sometimes recognize in terms of negotiating and contracting with insurance providers.”

Mary-Alice Vuicic is chief people officer for business information company Thomson Reuters. She said her company has expanded its mental health and well-being resources. “We’re looking to make access easier for people around the globe, a lot of which can come through telehealth and the breadth of providers,” she said.

One ready-made option for employers looking to ease workers back into the office is making sure they take all the vacation they’ve accrued. Stuck at home with nowhere to go and nothing to do, Americans who were lucky enough to stay employed in 2020 invariably banked a lot of days. 

“You’re just basically penalizing people for having gone to the wall for you during the pandemic.”

“A lot of companies are going to find themselves in a really weird situation where they have gigantic vacation rollover issues,” said Dowling, with many employees sitting on eight-plus weeks off. “What do you do with that? If you’re an HR head, and you haven’t come up with a solution, you’re just basically penalizing people for having gone to the wall for you during the pandemic.”

Now with vaccinations, falling infection rates and reopenings, U.S. employees can actually do something fun with that time off. Dowling said companies that are worried about staffing issues might consider buying out vacation time, or allowing workers to apply it to flex time. “This really needs to come from the top, because vacation is very rules based,” she said.

Rue Dooley, a longtime HR knowledge adviser for the Society for Human Resource Management, said that beyond basic benefits or flexible vacation, simply listening to employees can guide organizations trying to smooth the post-lockdown transition: are workers gabbing about Peloton instructors? Nanny services? Their pandemic rescue pets?

“An employer could empathetically listen to that and say, ‘Hey, here’s this inexpensive benefit, we can subsidize your pet insurance,’” Dooley said. “Employees will tell you what they need if you listen.” Bloomberg LP, parent of Bloomberg News, competes with Reuters in providing financial news and services.

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