At the time of this writing, we're just shy of six months into a pandemic that's created a host of new social norms, changed all kinds of businesses' operations and disrupted so many workers' normal routines. For many, 2020 has been a stressful year. And yet, somewhat understandably so, mental health has often taken a backseat to physical health in this hectic half trip around the sun.
Our own Jaime Feinberg — Vice President of Risk Control—offers some peace of mind and helps organizational leaders understand what they can do to promote mental health. As one of Captive Resources’ delegates on the National Safety Council's (NSC) SAFER Taskforce, Feinberg recently co-led a webinar on Supporting Employee Mental Health: Actions for Leadership.
In her portion of the webinar, Feinberg explained:
While it's probably safe to assume the pandemic has caused higher than normal stress levels and anxiety in the general population, people with even mild or moderate mental illness are likely to feel the effects more acutely. This is a significant issue for employers as nearly one in five U.S. adults lives with a mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH). For most of those 46.6 million Americans, their mental illnesses are not considered severe, and they often enjoy "normal lives" and successful careers.
Periods of high stress, however, can act as a catalyst for mental illnesses — especially during this pandemic where social isolation is so widespread. According to the NSC: "Extended social isolation increases risk for the development of mental health issues and substance use disorders, which can exacerbate pre-existing conditions."
Employees who have effectively managed mental health disorders — perhaps to the point where coworkers didn't even know about the condition — may start showing more obvious signs of their illness(es).
In stressful times, it's vital that managers, supervisors and other leaders foster a culture of care, promote good employee mental health and do what they can to lower the pressure, regardless of whether anyone on their team has a mental illness.
To know whether someone is struggling mentally during the pandemic, leaders need to have a baseline of their employees' behaviors.
“The more you get to know your employees now, especially while we can’t be face to face, the more you can see any differences in their mood, their personalities, their appearance, etc.,” said Feinberg.
Sometimes a little break can make a huge difference in employees’ mental health. As a leader, make sure your employees know it’s OK to step away occasionally by taking time off yourself. And when you do take time off, Feinberg recommended staying off email and chat; if your employees see you firing off messages on your days off, they’re likely to think that’s expected of them as well.
This tip is just good advice for leaders in general. Still, it can be incredibly valuable for anyone managing employees with mental illness: Make sure your team members understand what you expect of them by using the S.M.A.R.T. method to make goals:
As a leader, make sure that your team members know where they can go when they need help.
“You can have the greatest mental health coverage and benefits in the world, but if it’s hard for your employees to access these benefits, they’re never going to use them,” said Feinberg.
Phrases that might seem innocuous to one person could be offensive to others with mental illness. Lead by example and avoid using any idioms that trivialize mental conditions — this includes common refrains like "sorry, I can't focus, I'm a bit ADD today" or "he's so OCD about reports."
“Tell people they’re doing a good job. Ask them how they’re doing, how they’re family is doing. And actually listen. Make them feel good,” said Feinberg. “It’s not hard to do, and there’s zero cost to it. You never know who may need it.”
If you're interested in learning more about the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on employee mental health, check out NSC's collection of resources dedicated to mental health, stress reduction, substance misuse, etc.