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April 28, 2020

Employee mental health: More vulnerable than ever during the COVID-19 crisis

Courtney Patt,

Erika Tollefson


How to help employees reduce stress and manage mental health issues

The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent shelter-in-place orders have put unusual stress on the mental health of every employee who has to work from home. It obviously places far greater strain on those employees who are required to go to work, especially those who have to deal directly with the public.

Employees can feel as though they’re standing on quicksand, rather than solid ground. They’re not sure how to live their lives or how to move forward. They face possible financial insecurity along with isolation, fear of being alone and fear of the coronavirus itself, boredom, being overwhelmed by having to deal with family day and night while they try to balance work, and more.

There are even reports of people showing signs and symptoms of depression due to seeing what they look like on web cameras with no showers or make up and often in the worst possible light.

Mental health is a critical issue — with or without the pandemic

Stress is a part of life, but people react to it in different ways. The effects of stress can be significantly exacerbated by everything from financial difficulties to family problems to a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Employees who suffer from mental health issues are no different from those who have physical problems or an illness that requires treatment. It is not something they — or you — can afford to ignore. Mental health issues should be recognized and they should be treated.

What can you do to help employees cope, especially right now with the additional and potentially overwhelming stress of having to work from home, often with a family right on top of them?

Stress takes a toll

Stress is like stretching a rubber band. Over time it will lose strength, unravel and eventually snap. That’s what can happen to bodies and minds when they are hit with a variety of stressors, all coming at them at once over a long period of time. Eventually, stress will take a toll.

On the other hand, stress can be a positive factor in our lives. It can spur us on to be better parents, partners and employees. It can focus our attention. In fact, feeling somewhat stressed or worried is normal.

But when you add up job, kids, finances, extended family, caring for a home, doing errands and much, much more — and then add having to shelter-in-place for a month or more — stress can become traumatic. And, if it continues, it can cause burnout. Or far worse.

Stress can lead to anxiety, then depression

Stress can result in anxiety, particularly if an employee is already predisposed to having some form of anxiety disorder. It’s the feeling of dread or an undefined restlessness, and it can result in feeling tense, fatigued, and sick with headaches and stomach aches. And that anxiety can lead to depression. Depression can be managed, but it can also be a harbinger.

Mental health during a pandemic

Excerpted from the New England Journal of Medicine, published April 13, 2020:

Public health emergencies may affect the health, safety, and well-being of both individuals

(insecurity, confusion, emotional isolation) and communities (economic loss, work and school closures, inadequate resources for medical response, and deficient distribution of necessities).

These effects may translate into a range of emotional reactions, unhealthy behaviors, and noncompliance with public health directives in people who contract the disease and in the general population. Extensive research in disaster mental health has established that emotional distress is ubiquitous in affected populations — a finding certain to be echoed in populations affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

How do you help employees right now — and in the future?

What kind of support can you offer for employees’ mental health issues? There are fundamental ways you can help that can have immediate effect.

  1. Start by being empathetic
    Demonstrate that you truly understand and are able to share an employee’s feelings. If and when someone shares that they’re feeling overwhelmed, in crisis or depressed, make sure you acknowledge those feelings. Don’t belittle them or try to pass them off as not important. Even if they don’t sound like big problems to you, they are to that individual.

  2. Listen before you talk
    Whether an employee is expressing a problem or an idea, you should listen with an open mind and make that employee feel valued. You don’t have to solve their problems, you simply have to make sure they feel heard. Listening also helps generate connections with others and lets them know you have their backs. Once the employee has finished talking, summarize what you heard and ask questions to make sure you understand. Then, if it makes sense, point them to possible solutions.

  3. Use compassionate language
    Use empathetic language that makes employees feel that you are appreciating what they’re saying or feeling. Don’t brush off what the employee is saying by explaining you’ve experienced the same thing and were able to get through it. It’s fine to share experiences but not when it invalidates someone else’s problem.

    Think of yourself as the flight attendant during turbulence. Stay calm and let the employee know they’re in a safe place.

  4. Support healthy social connections
    This is obviously more difficult during this time of COVID-19, but social distancing has created even more of a need to be socially connected. But it’s not impossible.
    • Try asking employees to share funny, real-life examples of what’s going on in their limited world.
    • Create a company-specific hashtag to share moments.
    • Support efforts by teams or the entire company to do whatever they can to help those who are more affected by the pandemic — first responders, health care workers, grocery store workers, the working poor, homeless people, and more. Raise money for local food banks or other charities. Donate whatever you can.

What’s the best way to communicate with employees?

How you talk to employees, especially concerning their mental health — and especially during a crisis period like the one we’re currently going through — is as critical as what you tell them.

  • Above all be empathetic. Listen carefully to what employees tell you and make sure they feel that you truly understand them.
  • Lecturing or pontificating is equally as unproductive (not to mention counter-productive) as over-promising or avoiding tough subjects. Your employees want the truth, but they’d like it to come from a human being they trust.
  • Be assertive without being pushy. Be clear, concise and share information in a way that respects the dignity of every employee. Make sure the right people get the right information in the most efficient, direct way possible.
  • If you don’t know the answer, admit it. Let employees know you’ll find out and get back to them. Be honest and transparent about the positives as well as the negatives.
  • Try not to micromanage. You’re a manager, not a baby sitter. Trust your employees — even when they’re not in the office where you can see them — to get their jobs done right.
  • Make sure employees know that the company values them more than profits or productivity. Nothing happens without your employees — and when you focus on them, you’ll discover that productivity, engagement and teamwork all increase.
  • Finally, use the best form of communication for the task. For example, a lot of detailed information should be communicated by email, possibly with a downloadable PDF attached. In-person or by phone would be the best way to deliver more personal information. If you need interaction among a team, use video conferencing (in-person meetings will come back eventually).

Make sure employees have what they need to succeed

Most employees don’t work from home, which means most employees aren’t set up to work remotely. Make sure they have the resources, equipment and materials necessary to do their jobs. For example:

  • Laptop or tablet
  • Phone line for work, if necessary
  • Internet/VPN access to company files
  • Applications needed to complete tasks
  • Home access to any file sharing or HR software
  • Company email access
  • Access to video conferencing

But support goes beyond tools and resources. You also need to make sure they have meaningful support that helps them understand what is expected of them and why:

  • Clarify priorities and expectations
  • Make sure employees have access to you
  • Express our gratitude and encourage others to do the same
  • Insist that employees take frequent breaks
  • Ask about people’s emotional states
  • Offer to host discussions where people can get extra support from team members

You can also help employees working from home to better cope with the situation by offering them access to resources that will help them keep children occupied, connect socially and more.

Supporting employees who need to go to work

Working from home works for some employees, but what about those who still need to leave home and go to work? Transit drivers. Grocery store employees. Health care workers. And more.

  • Provide resources for employee safety. Make sure everyone who needs it has personal protection equipment (PPE) and sanitizing products.
  • Encourage any employee who feels ill, especially those who exhibit any symptoms of COVID-19, to go home and stay there. Check in with those employees regularly.
  • Encourage social distancing.
  • Offer a sick leave policy.

You can find more information at to help prevent workers from exposure to COVID-19 and specific recommendations for those in health care, death care, laboratories, airline operations, border protection, solid waste and wastewater management workers and business travel abroad.

Adjusting expectations — your employees and your own

Right now, employees are attempting to maintain a normal working pace while sharing close contact with spouses, significant others, children, pets, roommates and extended family. This is equivalent to doubling their workload as well as adding significantly to their stress levels.

If you insist on having them produce the same output and attend as many meetings as before the pandemic, your employees are headed for burnout. And that will affect you as much as does them.

At least during the period where we’re all required to stay home from work, consider the following:

  • Change your idea of a “typical” work day. Many of your employees will actually find it easier to get work done in the evening or on weekends while they’re home. Cut them some slack regarding due dates. Be as fluid and flexible as possible with schedules and how many hours an employee is putting in during what used to be a “normal” work day.
  • Focus on key performance deliverables. In other words, don’t sweat the small stuff (see above). Help your managers focus on valuable benchmarks rather than “finishing tasks.” That avoids the problems caused by employees feeling that the organization doesn’t trust them to be productive if they aren’t being micromanaged and monitored.

Other ways you can support employee mental health

Mental health is a continuum — it can range from feeling a bit overwhelmed by life and work to being diagnosed with a mental health disorder. A one size solution does not fit all.

  • You can help employees access a wide range of tools to help them lower burn out and the possibility of depression, achieve a better work/life balance, reduce conflict at work (and even at home), improve sleep quality, and reach higher levels of happiness.
  • There are apps, many of them free, that can help employees practice mindfulness and meditation to help them focus and relax.
  • You can offer online support groups or the company can also provide access to telehealth services where employees can talk with a mental health professional online.
  • If the problems are more serious and immediate, direct employees to a Crisis Hot Line.
  • You can even recommend simple solutions, including:
    • Walking and exercising
    • Stretching
    • Mindful breathing
    • Taking breaks
    • Creating varied routines
    • Staying in touch with friends and co-workers
    • Eating healthier, more nutritious foods
    • Develop a healthy lifestyle, including not smoking, drinking in moderation, getting enough sleep — anything that can help support the immune system
    • Being grateful for what you have and for others
    • Finding ways to have fun
    • Practice being “present” to avoid anxiety (take a moment to notice five things they can see, four they can touch, three they can hear, two they can smell, and one they can taste to keep them in the moment)

In other words, anything that can help employees feel more in control of their emotions, have more positive interactions and even find ways to create space between work life and home life, especially during the pandemic.

How MMA can help

Marsh & McLennan Agency has the expertise and the experience to help you create the right kind of plan for your employee population and the best ways to communicate with employees about mental health. To learn more, get in touch with your MMA representative.

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