Employers who want their people to stay productive through the pandemic need to pay attention to their mental health.
According to a survey conducted by mEquilibrium, the rate of job stress during the pandemic is soaring. One-third more employees report high levels of job stress compared to December 2019, said Pam Boiros, chief marketing officer for the Boston-based employee resilience training platform.
“Employees are dealing with massive upset and disruption and it's causing a lot ofburnout, anxiety and depression,” she said.
That stress isn’t just felt in employees' personal lives. It has a direct effect on workplace productivity. A study conducted by mental health provider Ginger found rising levels of stress are causing employees to miss more work, skip more meetings and have trouble collaborating with teammates. Almost half of respondents said COVID-related stress causes them to lose between one and three hours of productivity every day.
And if the boss isn’t supportive, the effect of that stress is much worse, Boiros said. mEquilibrium’s survey found the rate of job stress among employees who feel unsupported by their employer was more than 10 times higher than those who felt strongly supported.
Managers' Instincts May Be Wrong
Managers who have never led a virtual team may be feeling an urge to demand greater productivity from remote workers or to start threatening employees who aren’t pulling their weight. But the data proves that approach will only make things worse.
If they want more productive employees, managers have to eliminate the barriers to their success. And during the pandemic, one of the biggest barriers they face is poor mental health.
“Leaders need to create a safe place for employees to deal with these issues,” said Melissa Taylor, partner in charge for strategy, insights and learning at Porter Novelli, a global public relations agency based in New York.
In response to the surge in stress, Taylor’s team has taken a holistic approach to mental health training, balancing practical guidance with events designed to ease stressors in the workplace.
Goats and Wigs: Create Moments of Joy
Traditional training includes things like asynchronous online courses for managers on how to build a resilient workforce and town hall meetings where executives talk about how they cope with their own stress.
To supplement that, Taylor also looks for opportunities to lighten the mood. For example, Porter Novelli recently partnered with a local rescue farm and Taylor periodically has a rescued goat sit in on company Zoom calls. The farmer spends a few minutes talking about the goat then the meeting continues with the goat as a participant.
“The lesson from the goat is to never underestimate the power of levity in hard times,” she said.
Taylor also regularly shows up to Zoom meetings wearing outrageous wigs without acknowledging them, which adds an amusing flair to serious conversations. It shows the value of creating experiences rather than just espousing them, she said.
“Instead of telling people to find moments of joy, we provide them,” Taylor said.
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Provide Lots of Stress Relief Options
Brett Kaufman, CEO of Kaufman Development in Columbus, Ohio, takes a similar approach to supporting the mental health of his employees. Kaufman built his company around the premise that peopleshouldn’t have to wait till the weekend – or retirement – to do what they feel passionate about.
“I wanted to create a business where people could be passionate about where they work,” he said.
For Kaufman, that meant building flexibility and options into the workflow. “There is no one-size approach,” he said. Instead, he offers a variety of tools and workplace options to address everyone’s needs. For example, if two colleagues love running they might have a mid-day meeting on a run, or if employees have a favorite charity they are encouraged to spend a few work hours volunteering. He also offers access to guided meditations, one-on-one life coaching, therapists and other mental health services as part of the employee benefits package.
When the pandemic hit, the company shifted most of the mental health options to a virtual environment, offering online coaching and virtual meet ups. “It’s woven into the fabric of our work so it was a smooth transition,” Kaufmann said.
For Kaufman, this dedication to mental wellness isn’t just about being nice to employees. It’s about building a more resilient business. “When your team is mentally stronger, they are more prepared to deal with difficult times,” he said.
How to Build a More Resilient Workforce
For leaders wondering how they can build a more resilient workplace that inspires passion and moments of joy during these chaotic times, Taylor, Kaufman and Boiros offered this advice:
- Don’t assume your people are fine. Just because someone isn’t sharing their fears, it doesn’t mean they aren’t afraid, said Kaufman. He encourages leaders to take the first step by talking about their own mental health issues and inviting employees to share their concerns. “When managers make themselves vulnerable it creates an opening for others to share what they need.”
- Don’t assume managers know what to do. Business schools don’t teach you how to lead employees through a prolonged global crisis, Boiros said. “They are facing tremendous pressure to manage their own stress whole providing employees with support,” she said. To close the gap, provide leaders with training on how to help employees manage stress,and how to create safe spaces where people feel comfortable sharing their concerns.
- Model good behavior. “When leaders demonstrate wellness practices it lets employees know that it’s OK to take care of yourself,” Taylor said. Whether that’s taking a mental health day, taking part in a company-sponsored meditation or volunteer activity, or introducing their cat on an all-company Zoom call, it is an authentic way for leaders to encourage self-care.
Talking about mental health can feel uncomfortable in a work setting but it can go a long way toward easing stress and giving employees the tools they need to function. “It’s hard to gauge what people need, so you have to get them talking,” Kaufman said. Those conversations are the first step to creating a less stressful workplace.