As we prepare for businesses to reopen and employees to return to work, it is important to recognize the adverse mental and emotional effects the COVID-19 pandemic has had on many individuals. Employees returning to work will likely bring the stress and anxiety of the quarantine period with them. Additionally, “reopening” itself might give rise to new and unexpected mental health concerns. Thankfully, employers can take several steps to address the mental and emotional needs of their employees in healthy, positive ways.
Mental Health During a Pandemic
Many people understand that the pandemic has intensified the regular stressors of daily life and has left the public feeling overwhelmed, vulnerable and lacking control. The pandemic is, in reality, a natural disaster. Even though we do not commonly think of it in that way, it has affected people in ways similar to other catastrophes. Research has demonstrated the negative impact of uncertainty on mental health following natural disasters, such as increased suicidal ideation, hopelessness, distrust, panic and difficulty functioning in social situations. Initial findings indicate the current pandemic has produced similar results. Additionally, it has introduced a unique feature: fear of contagion.
Alongside the difficulties of a pandemic, many people have also been struggling with a prolonged quarantine. Various forms of sheltering in place have increased anxiety by reducing people’s scope of movement and their ability to have routine interactions. Some studies, including “SARS control and psychological effects of quarantine, Toronto, Canada” (July 2004) and “Epidemics, quarantine and mental health” (April 2020), have shown that a quarantine’s negative impacts on mental health include:
- Depression and PTSD
- Isolation and loneliness
- Anger and irritability
- Anxiety and stress
- Emotional exhaustion
In addition to these psychological and physiological effects, the pandemic has negatively impacted education and the economy, and forced people to adapt immediately. Many employees on the verge of returning to work have likely been experiencing these symptoms for several weeks.
Beyond just supporting returning workers, it is crucial to realize that employees who have already returned to work are not necessarily free from the mental health difficulties caused by the pandemic. Transit to work and interaction with others might be accompanied by a constant fear of contagion. And, as COVID numbers rise in some areas, employees may continue to fear the possibility of another shutdown, and thus a return to full quarantine. This daily uncertainty can leave employees on edge and in a consistent state of stress related to finances, childcare and other concerns.
Reopening Brings Its Own Concerns
The challenges of this virus are evolving further with the current reopening. Heading back into the workplace means employees must adapt to a new major work transition. Employees who might have adopted a work routine at home will be disrupted. Parents who became accustomed to spending quality time with their children will suddenly have to cut that interaction short — not to mention they may be struggling to find adequate childcare.
Indeed, there are many reasons employees may be feeling dread and stress at this time. If depression and anxiety are acutely present in returning workers, they could be suffering from what is termed “adjustment disorder,” a psychological and emotional response to a disruptive event. This occurs when someone cannot easily adapt to a stressful life event, such as a sudden return to the workplace in the wake of a contagious disease pandemic.
What Employers Can Do
Work environments have experienced so much change in a short amount of time that employees need assurance of physical, emotional and financial safety. As society embarks on a “new normal,” it is especially important for workplaces to adapt and be accommodating to employees’ mental health needs. Employers might consider the following to ease employees back into the workplace so as to minimize mental health concerns and other stress:
- Regularly and clearly communicate. Communicate with your workforce about any changes in policies and protocol. Demonstrate that you are thinking of possible contingencies and taking necessary action to inspire confidence, and provide clear action steps if you need your workforce to make particular adjustments.
- Receive feedback. Express that you are open to receiving feedback as well, so employees feel there is an open dialogue. If possible, create opportunities for employees to provide input on decisions regarding proposed “return to work” schedules, work tasks and protocols. Simply feeling like they are being heard and have some degree of control in their workplace can be calming for employees.
- Promote safety. Provide your employees with detailed information on how you are promoting physical safety within the company, such as your protocol for social distancing, wearing masks and the use of sanitation stations. Depending on your workplace, you might provide visual reminders of safety precautions the company is implementing, such as an informative poster or markings on the floor to demonstrate proper social distancing.
- Institute flexible scheduling. Allow for flexible scheduling with your employees, especially as parents might not yet have consistent childcare options. You can also be flexible with time management by permitting workers more frequent, smaller breaks throughout the day, or the ability to take a short walk outside, to encourage stress reduction and avoid working while overwhelmed or distracted. Research has shown that providing such adjustments can lead to positive reintegration after a prolonged work absence.
- Review leave policies. Remind your employees about company procedures surrounding sick time and paid time off, and that these tools can be used in the unfortunate circumstance that they become directly affected by COVID-19.
- Recommend your EAP. Encourage employees to seek assistance if they are experiencing distressing symptoms. Recommend that they utilize your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), if one is available. Reassure your employees that these resources are available for their benefit and they should feel free to take advantage of them without fear of stigma.
- Use resources for employee wellness. Allocate part of your employee budget towards services or resources aimed at promoting positive mental health and wellness. These could include team-building exercises, directed meditation sessions or a properly distanced social gathering.
- Give advance notice. No one likes having to make big changes in a short amount of time. Provide your employees with notice of any return to work dates as early as possible. Three to four weeks’ notice will allow enough time for your employees to plan for childcare, transportation, and safety precautions.
The Law Mandates Support
If an employee informs you that he or she is suffering from a mental health disability, you are required to engage in the “interactive process” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This means you should obtain specifics from the employee regarding the work limitations caused by the disability, details of the requested accommodation and medical documentation. Although you are not required to immediately produce the accommodation requested, you must promptly respond to the request.
You do not necessarily need to provide the precise accommodation requested by your employee, but you are obligated to make a good-faith effort to provide a reasonable and effective accommodation. Be sure to have a detailed understanding of your policy and procedures for managing accommodation requests from employees. See “Accommodation Policies” in this blog for more guidance. If you have additional questions about this process, consult experienced employment counsel.
It is also best to keep up to date with any changes or added benefits your health insurance carrier may have implemented due to COVID-19. If there are substantial changes, make sure to keep your employees informed.
Mental health struggles are not only harmful for individuals. They can create disruptions in the workplace and lead to decreased productivity. However, the more employers create a workplace that fosters mental and emotional health, the less anxiety employees will have about returning to work and the smoother your operations will run.
Angelia Salgado has provided legal support and team management to personal injury and employment law practices. She holds a B.A. in Psychology and is currently pursuing her master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Roosevelt University. Her professional interests focus on cultivating work/life balance and business counseling for creating healthy workplaces.
Tags: Talent Management , employee experience , Mental Health , COVID-19