As employers across the globe adjust their work environments to help slow down the spread of the coronavirus, one thing that shouldn’t get lost in the fray is a focus on supporting employees’ mental health.
Employees are facing a myriad of stressors right now, including financial worries about the effects of the volatile market on their retirement savings, paying their bills and cancelling vacations, as well as social concerns about not seeing family and friends for the foreseeable future.
One of the most significant — and easiest — steps employers can take is acknowledging what their employees may be going through, says Nora Jenkins Townson, founder and principal of Toronto-based human resources consultancy Bright + Early.
She says companies can send out communications such as a list of community resources and an explanation of how to access mental-health and other resources in their benefits plans and employee assistance programs, with information on how much coverage is available.
There are also online resources to which employers can direct their staff. Mindfulness and meditation app Headspace has started sharing free tools and resources, including curated mindfulness content and a toolkit for navigating uncertainty to help teams affected by the crisis. And Morneau Shepell Ltd. has launched an internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy program tailored to addressing pandemic-related anxieties: caring for family and community members, information overload, social isolation, stress management and uncertainty.
“We know many Canadians are struggling with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their mental health,” said Nigel Branker, president of health and productivity at Morneau Shepell, in a press release. “Our goal is to facilitate access [to mental-health resources] and provide support to as many people as possible across the country.”
Karen Adams, chief commercial and health innovation officer at Snapclarity, a workplace mental-health app provider, says two different things are happening as employees settle into the new normal. “People who have angst or are feeling uneasy about where things are, that can create an emotional reaction that . . . plays itself out. . . . Then we have people who have serious mental-health issues that [may] disable them during this time. They might not have known they had a mental-health issue prior to the isolation kicking in.”
While employers have likely spent the last week setting up pandemic procedures, and may still be focusing on that, they have to turn their mind to what comes next, including building employees’ coping and resiliency skills, says Adams. “A fundamental concern on my part is, do people understand their stress and anxiety levels? [We need to give] them access to resources to help them with coping mechanisms. Prevention is important as days turn into weeks or months.”
Snapclarity’s app provides assessments for 13 mental-health disorders and a digital coach that helps users develop coping behaviours. Adams says she’s been speaking with employers about making employees aware of their risk factor and giving them the ability to build up their resiliency in a difficult period. “If we’re not spending money right now to build resiliency, we could be in for a landslide on short-term disability and long-term disability claims.”
Beyond providing resources, employers can help employees by focusing on output instead of hours, says Jenkins Townson, especially for employees who are at home with children or other dependants. “With remote work, it’s hard to know who’s in front of the computer at all times. But [employers should be] thinking in terms of, ‘This is what we have to get done this week’ and letting people be flexible with their hours.”
However, Adams cautions companies against forgetting employees who don’t have family with whom they can isolate and may be dealing with loneliness.
Employers can also provide employees with more opportunity for community building. The team at Bright + Early now has a virtual happy hour every Friday afternoon. Jenkins Townson has also seen some companies set up an ongoing Zoom chat “break rooms” that employees can pop in and out of as they desire.
Adams has seen an employer develop an internal community portal where employees can sign up for events that interest them, including book clubs and movie groups.
And, on the work side, employers can encourage the use of video conferencing so employees and managers can see each other face-to-face. “I don’t care if your makeup’s not done. Let’s connect, let’s look at each other, let’s make sure you’re OK,” says Adams.
Benefits Canada is hosting a free webinar on Tuesday, March 31 at 11:15 AM EST, featuring a panel of experts to dig into how employers can help employees navigate this difficult time. Find more information and register for the webinar here.