Promoting Workplace Mental Health In The Age of COVID-19

Coronavirus. It is nearly impossible to avoid the topic online, on TV, or at work. Gatherings are being canceled or postponed, employers are restricting travel, and organizations are deploying action plans to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. 

At this point, we are well aware of steps that we can take to protect our physical health amidst this epidemic: washing our hands, staying in if we are sick, and avoiding close contact with others who are. But what about our mental health?

Between social media’s endless stream of information and news reports of mandatory quarantines, it is only natural for people to experience concern, fear, and anxiety. We learned from the SARS epidemic that quarantine has been associated with negative mental health effects such as post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion, and anger. These effects can also impact professionals in fields deeply impacted by COVID-19, such as healthcare and hospital workers.

As workplaces continue to grapple with the best course of action for maintaining the health, safety, and productivity of their employees, they must also consider employee 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 with a statement that the organization is foremost concerned with the safety and health of employees. Continued operations are important, but employers should list it as a secondary priority. After all, employers cannot have business continuity without a healthy workforce.
  • Ensure all supervisors reinforce this same messaging and genuine concern. When employees hear inconsistent messaging 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 work?

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

Be transparent

  • Great communication goes a long way in allaying anxiety. As you make decisions related to the coronavirus, share them as soon as you can with your employees. The fact that you have a thoughtful plan is something that many employees will take comfort in. Be sure to share it! 
  • Encourage open communication about any concerns employees may have for the well-being of themselves, their 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 would like additional support.

Be flexible

  • One of the biggest stressors for many employees is the well-being of those they may care for. Those with children are likely concerned about how to handle school or daycare closures; employees who care for older adults may have increased responsibilities given the CDC’s advice that those populations stay home. Offer support for navigating these responsibilities. By providing flexible working arrangements such as telecommuting, flex-scheduling, virtual check-ins, and leave as needed, you can allay fears about how employees will navigate these competing demands. 

For Ourselves 

Know when to disconnect

  • In this information age, fear and concern around health issues like the coronavirus can be amplified. It is more important than ever to check in with yourself and assess how you are doing—not only physically, but also mentally. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed with the influx of information, give yourself permission to unplug. This looks different for everyone, but may include:
    • Taking a break from social networking altogether until the media surge passes, or until you feel like you are in a space where it won’t impact you negatively
    • Setting a limit on the frequency with which you go 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 new reports emerging on a regular basis, and with every news station sharing similar coverage, it can be easy to feel like the coronavirus is everywhere. Consider identifying one or two reputable, fact-based news sources and make the decision to only follow those ones. Examples include the CDC, the World Health Organization, or your local public health department. And, if you’re looking for something more optimistic, check out “PositivelyWell” which was created by the Global Wellness Institute to positively address COVID-19.

Flex your mindfulness muscle

  • The reality with issues like coronavirus is that, despite even our best efforts, we may be exposed to it or catch it. While a certain degree of alarm is healthy, and perhaps even warranted, it is also critical to find ways to maintain balance amidst what feels like chaos. Giving yourself the time to do something restorative: whether yoga, a guided meditation, coloring, or simply resting, can go a long way.

Have a plan

  • Just as your workplace likely has a plan in the event employees need to work remotely, you should too. By spending time mentally walking through the steps that you would take if you were to be impacted you can potentially help to 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 that you can use to stay positive even during trying times.

Reach out

  • If you are feeling increased stress about coronavirus, you are most certainly not alone. Talking about your concerns with a friend, a trusted colleague, a family member, or even a professional can be helpful, particularly if you can try to create a dialogue that is supportive and positive. Similarly, spending time with loved ones and actively not talking about the coronavirus may also do wonders for your well-being and provide a welcome distraction. And, if you or someone you know does become quarantined, connection can be more important than ever to prevent social isolation. 

As organizations around the world mobilize to address this outbreak, be proactive and consider both the mental and physical impacts that this might have. Open and clear communication, planning, and support mechanisms are key to maintaining the health, safety, and productivity of your employees–and ourselves.

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