That takes a toll on people’s mental health and poses a particular challenge to employers.
Constant stress and uncertainty combined with unhealthy coping mechanisms — such as stress eating and drinking alcohol — can affect employees’ moods, sleep patterns, attention spans, energy and, consequently, their work.
Here’s what managers and company leaders can do to help mitigate the mental health risks facing their team members and de-stigmatize the issue so those who need help will seek it.
Getting hit simultaneously with a deadly health crisis, daily economic shocks and the almost constant political warfare over all of it is too much for anyone to handle without missing a beat.
“Acknowledge this is tough and [let people know] it’s ok to say so,” said Mary Kay O’Neill, a partner in health and benefits at Mercer Consulting. “There’s resiliency in acknowledging the shared situation.”
And do so not only in group discussions, but also in one-on-one conversations with team members. You also might consider having an office hour where anyone can call you if they need to. “That keeps the channel open,” she said.
Lead by example
Both managers and top brass might consider sharing how they themselves are handling the stresses in their lives. Or, at the very least, make clear that they empathize with what other employees are going through.
Also, take time off and show your team how it’s done. At Mercer, O’Neill said, high level executives are being required to take some of their vacation days now and announce when they do. “It’s modeling behavior.”
Notice uncharacteristic behaviors
Managers have to tell the difference between when a team member is acting normally or not. If someone’s temper flares or their work is late, is that typical of them or is it unusual? If it’s unusual, “the root cause may be different than just someone doing poorly,” O’Neill said.
Consider whether drinking or substance abuse might be an issue. Even people who never had a problem before the pandemic now may be using alcohol or prescription drugs as coping mechanisms, said Patrick Krill, an attorney and addiction counselor who advises law firms and corporate legal departments.
The Kaiser Family Foundation found that 13% of Americans said they had increased their drinking or drug use in response to the stress over coronavirus and prescriptions are up for anti-anxiety and anti-depression drugs.
“Substance use occurs on a continuum,” Krill said, ranging from abstinence to social use to regular use to problematic use. For example, someone who normally drinks socially may expect a drink will take the edge off. But if they become increasingly preoccupied with having one, and then end up drinking enough to have a slight hangover the next day, that’s a change in the nature of alcohol use, he explained. “It becomes less voluntary and more habitual.”
That doesn’t mean the person is an alcoholic, but the habit at the very least could jeopardize their physical health and their ability to concentrate and perform their job well.
“If the nature of their work is complex and a small detail is overlooked, that can be catastrophic for the employer,” Krill said.
Communicate often about how employees can get help
There’s no such thing as alerting your team too often to the free resources the company is providing to help them through this period.
While most people may think of Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) as providing free psychological counseling, they’re much more versatile than that.
EAPs also match employees with qualified providers of free financial counseling and legal advice, identity theft assistance as well as substance abuse help and wellness services, such as meditation.
“The root cause of stress is often financial or legal,” said Dan Clark, CEO of IBH Population Health Solutions, a provider of EAPs specializing in behavioral health and crisis management services.
And managers should encourage team members to take good care of themselves by taking frequent breaks, staying connected to colleagues and using the mental health services on offer if they need it, stressing that there is no shame in doing so, Clark said.
Recognize that returning to the office also poses mental health risks
Just as grocery shopping has become anxiety provoking, so too will a return to commuting and working in person with everyone again, O’Neill said. Managers will have to ensure compliance with new hygiene practices and employees will have to get used to new safety protocols, which may include temperature checks, social distancing, and being more mindful of touching surfaces.
In short, a lot of mental energy will be sucked up by the smallest things having nothing to do with your actual work. “It’s like you’ll have a second job. And that’s stressful,” she said.
And in cases where an employee may have picked up a bad coping habit — such as drinking more to relieve stress or relying on prescription drugs to take the edge off — that’s not going to disappear overnight.
“You can’t just turn it on and off when it ‘s time to go back to work. This is going to be a significant challenge for the workforce as we come out of this,” Krill said.