Elizabeth Bille and Erin McClintock

As the pandemic persists and omicron continues to surge, it remains nearly impossible to avoid the topic of COVID-19. Many gatherings continue to be canceled or postponed, employers are still restricting travel, and organizations continue to deploy and evolve action plans to mitigate the virus’ impact. Not to mention, there seems to be a new COVID variant every time we turn around. And with each one, a renewed feeling of anxiety seems to settle in.

At this point, we’re well aware of the steps we can take to protect our physical health: getting vaccinated and boosted, washing our hands, masking, and physical distancing.

But what about our mental health?

Between the endless stream of information and news across social and traditional media, it’s only natural to experience concern, fear, and anxiety. One particular aspect relates to spending time in quarantine, which we learned from the SARS epidemic has been associated with serious mental health issues, which can include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, depression, confusion, and anger. These effects can also impact professionals in fields deeply affected by COVID, such as healthcare and hospital workers.

As workplaces continue to grapple with the best course of action for maintaining their employees’ health, safety, and productivity, it’s important to consider employees’ mental health. The following strategies are designed to support your mental wellness efforts.

For Organizations

Lead with a focus on well-being

When communicating tactical, business continuity-related information, start by stating the safety and health of your employees remains your top concern. Continued operations are important, but list them as a secondary priority. After all, you can’t have business continuity without a healthy workforce.

Ensure your supervisors are reinforcing this same messaging and expressing genuine concern. When employees hear inconsistencies from leaders about sick leave, for example, or if some supervisors pressure employees to put their health at risk despite leadership’s instructions to the contrary, the damage to morale, engagement, and workplace culture can be devastating.

Returning to the office?

Keep your workplace safe, promote employee well-being, and create a more inclusive work environment through online training.

Be transparent

  • Great communication can go a long way in reducing anxiety. When making decisions related to COVID, share them as soon as you can with your employees. Knowing you have a thoughtful plan is something many employees will take comfort in. Be sure to share it!
  • Encourage open communication about concerns employees may have for their well-being or colleagues’, customers’, or communities’. Identify leaders who can answer questions about your organization’s policies and employees’ individual circumstances. Encourage employees to contact your Employee Assistance Program if they need additional support.

Be flexible

  • One of the biggest stressors for many employees is around those they provide care for. Parents are likely concerned about handling school or daycare closures, or may face confusion as rules can vary across school districts and even from the CDC’s guidance. Employees who care for older adults or an immunocompromised loved one may have increased responsibilities. Offer support for navigating these situations. By providing flexible working arrangements such as telecommuting, flex-scheduling, virtual check-ins, and leave as needed, you can help ease your employees’ fears about how to handle these competing demands.

For Ourselves

Know when to disconnect

  • In the Information Age we live in, fear and concern around health issues like COVID can be amplified. It’s more important than ever to check in with yourself and assess how you’re doing — not only physically, but also mentally. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by the influx of information, give yourself permission to unplug. This looks different for everyone, but may include:
    • Taking a break from social networking until a media surge passes or you feel like you’re in a space where it won’t impact you negatively.
    • Setting limits on how much time you spend online (built-in functionality on many smartphones makes it easy to set limits).
    • Temporarily unfollow or avoid people, news sources, or pages that cause unnecessary or unwelcome negativity.

Remind yourself of the facts

  • With news reports emerging regularly — and every news station sharing similar coverage — it can be easy to feel like the pandemic is inescapable. Consider identifying one or two reputable, fact-based news sources and follow only those. Examples include the CDC, World Health Organization, or your local health system or public health department. Looking for something more optimistic? Check out “PositivelyWell” which was created by the Global Wellness Institute to positively address COVID.

Flex your mindfulness muscle

  • The reality is that, despite our best efforts, we can still be exposed to COVID or contract it. While a certain degree of caution is healthy (and perhaps warranted), it’s also critical to find ways to maintain balance among what can feel like chaos. Giving yourself time to do something restorative, like yoga, guided meditation, coloring, or simply resting, can go a long way.

Have a plan

  • Just as your workplace likely has a response plan, you should too. Mentally walking through the steps you would take if you are impacted by COVID can help combat the anxiety of the unknown. Consider things like childcare, work-from-home arrangements, and a communication strategy for keeping in touch with loved ones, as well as affirmations you can use to stay positive during challenging times.

Reach out

  • It’s common and totally normal to feel increased stress during the pandemic. Sharing your concerns with a friend, trusted colleague, family member, or professional can be helpful, particularly if they can offer a supportive, positive dialogue. Similarly, spending time with loved ones and actively not talking about the pandemic can do wonders for your well-being and provide a welcome distraction. And, if you or someone you know becomes infected or undergoes quarantine, staying connected can help prevent social isolation.

As organizations around the world continue to evolve during COVID, be proactive and consider both the mental and physical impacts these changes might have. Open and clear communication, planning, and support mechanisms are key to maintaining the health, safety, and productivity of your employees — and yourself.

Working from Home When Home Isn’t Safe

Ensure that your organization is supporting remote workers that suffer abuse at home by recognizing the impact of domestic violence and sharing resources.