As we continue to face the fallout of the COVID-19 crisis, more and more challenges are emerging, bringing more and more tension along with them. With businesses, communities, and families all feeling the impacts, it’s natural for mental health consequences related to the crisis to escalate during this time. Many employees may be starting to experience stress, anxiety, worry, loneliness, or depression, and are looking for ways to cope. The good news is there's still plenty we can do to get through this together. Here are 5 ways HR leaders can help protect their employees’ mental health through these current times of uncertainty and beyond.
1. Communicate and support
Because everyone reacts to stressful situations differently, it's important to understand your employees' needs and communicate clearly how they can access any resources you have. If you have a mental health policy already in place, you may want to review your current policy to see what options it provides to help your employees during a crisis and add to it if possible should you discover gaps.
Whether you offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), crisis counseling, or link to resources for public assistance, you need to lay out your policies for your employees using as many channels of communication as possible and show them clear paths to get help. Other ways to increase your employees’ feelings of safety, security, and well-being include ensuring they feel confident and knowledgeable about the measures you’re taking to protect them, especially if they’re onsite, and keeping your organizational culture going through lighter communications that help take everyone’s minds off the stress that surrounds us all currently.
HR should be in touch with employees often, listen with empathy to what they’re experiencing, and advise accordingly. If you find employees who aren’t coping well and need extra help or support, encourage them to seek out additional resources or speak with a mental health professional.
2. Understand the signs and symptoms
Recognizing signs and symptoms of declining mental health early is essential to ensure employees are getting the right help. Keep in mind that employees will only open up and share their struggles with others when there's an environment of trust. Encourage your employees to listen to their body and how they’re feeling – do they notice any changes, such as heightened stress, depression, or anxiety? Keeping the open lines of communication we just talked about will allow your employees to feel comfortable sharing what they’re experiencing, build trust, and help you as a leader promote well-being for all employees. Here are some common signs and symptoms to share with your employees so they can identify what they’re experiencing:
- Difficulty sleeping or excessive sleeping
- Weight gain or weight loss
- Restlessness, irritability, or anger
- Mood swings and intense feelings, including fear, worry, sadness, or guilt
- Headaches, digestive problems, or chronic pain
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
- Racing thoughts, racing heart, sweaty hands
- Withdrawing or isolating
- Fatigue or decreased energy
- Excessive, persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" mood
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Detachment or avoidance
- Worsening preexisting or chronic mental health conditions
- Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs
It's normal for a traumatic event of any kind to create emotional disturbances, and what we're all going through right now is traumatic for many. Making an effort to help your employees name and define what’s going on as it arises and giving them tools to proactively track their well-being will help address any signs or symptoms before they get out of control.
3. Promote work-life balance
If an employee does not have a healthy balance between their work and home life, they may start to experience signs of burnout, anxiety, or depression. This is especially likely now when employees are being asked to work a lot of overtime hours or are in remote situations that blur the lines between home and office time. HR should encourage employees to take time to unwind and disconnect from work and encourage managers to provide those opportunities for their teams. Here are some examples of what you can propose:
- Taking 10-15 minutes in silence or using a meditation app to decompress can help your employees refocus their mindset from work to home
- Writing down what they accomplished during the day or what they want to accomplish tomorrow as part of a work shutdown routine
- Taking short breaks throughout the day to move around, recharge, and refocus
Balance may look different from one employee to the next but supporting your employees with options enjoying both their work and personal lives can go a long way in protecting their mental well-being.
4. Maintain personal connections
With social distancing, stay-at-home orders, heightened risks/safety precautions for essential employees onsite, and more employees working remotely, the lack of connection and added stress can cause fear, anxiety, and increased feelings of loneliness and isolation. HR professionals should encourage employees to lean into relationships, both in and out of the workplace.
When an employee has a support system in place to talk about their fears and concerns with people they trust, it can help calm anxiety. Advising managers to establish networking or communication huddles for their teams that allow employees to openly share their concerns can help them feel more connected, as well as other communication opportunities like HR office hours, whether virtual, by phone, or in a safe in-person setting, for more general questions or concerns.
5. Promote stress management and self-care practices
Introducing stress management and self-care practices to your employees can make them feel valued and show you care about their mental health. When employees are actively taking care of themselves, it can decrease any negative mental health symptoms and have a positive effect on their overall well-being. Here are some common practices that you can share with your employees to help them during this crisis and beyond:
- Keep a journal: One way to manage stress is journaling your thoughts. Getting your feelings out on paper will help you to sort out your thoughts and feelings. When you get the emotions out, it can lessen the impacts and give you clarity. In addition, keeping a gratitude journal of 3 to 5 things that you're grateful for or that went well for the day can help improve your mood. Journaling can help you identifying what's triggering your emotions and determine what's bothering you, so you can take steps to protect your mental health.
- Exercise: Physical activity can be a huge stress and anxiety reliever. When you exercise, you release endorphins that make you feel good. Any kind of exercise for 20 minutes, 3 times a week can benefit your physical and mental health. Because exercise is very personal, you will have to determine what works best for you. The important thing here is to get your body moving.
- Practice breathing exercises: Breathing exercises can help you relax and calm you down. Being intentional with your breathing lowers stress and helps you think more clearly. There are many types of breathing exercises you can put in practice, such as deep breathing, pursed lips breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, meditation, or yoga, to name a few. Take time to explore with different methods to find a technique that works for you.
- Take care of your body: With all the changes we're having to make as a result of this crisis, it will be important to take every step to eat healthy, get enough sleep, and stay active. Getting enough sleep and refueling your body properly will help reduce stress.
- Take care of your mind: There are many ways to refresh your mind. This may be an opportunity to learn something new, read a book, or start a project that you've put off in the past. Keeping mentally active can boost your thinking skills and keep your mind sharp. Furthermore, keeping activities in place that you enjoy, having fun, and laughing can counteract some of the intense emotions you may be feeling.
- Control what you can: In these uncertain times, there are many things that are out of your control. Focusing on the things that you can control will ease some of the discomfort you may be experiencing. Making a list will help you understand what's within your control and can strengthen your resilience during times of stress.
Conclusion: We're all in this together
Everyone in the world is impacted by COVID-19 and is struggling at some level. Now more than ever, HR leaders must consider the well-being of their employees and create a culture that supports mental health. If you would like to learn more ways to help your organization and your employees manage through these difficult times, check out our resource page.