As mask guidelines loosen and people begin to travel and gather more regularly, it’s clear we are entering a new phase of the pandemic in the United States: recovery. As employers think about their post-pandemic office plans, caring for employees’ mental health should be top of mind.
For many employees, the pandemic was by definition, “traumatic.” Trauma is an emotional response to events that are terrible, shocking, and/or life-changing. Many of the direct effects of the pandemic, such as economic loss, prolonged social isolation, death of a loved one, or prolonged uncertainty all add to an employee’s psychological distress and could fall within this category.
Even as vaccines become more widely available, this trauma is still taking a significant toll on this country. A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 47% of adults continue to report feelings of anxiety or depression due to the pandemic. These increased feelings of anxiety have been further exacerbated by many employees working longer hours from home. In fact, some reports find that during the pandemic, 70% of full-time workers in the U.S. worked from home. An Indeed survey found that 67% of employees, including millennials, baby boomers, Gen Xers and Gen Zers, reported feeling that burnout at work has become worse since March 2020.
Just as schools are rethinking how to connect with their students and address social-emotional learning needs in the wake of COVID-19, business leaders should reconsider how they are meeting the social-emotional needs of employees. Below are three recommendations for supporting employee mental health, whether in an all-remote, hybrid, or in-person environment.
1. Allow employees flexibility to ease into a “new normal.”
Even if employees are vaccinated, many might feel uncomfortable or anxious about returning to the office, developing new routines and being away from family after being together for a long period of time. Honor those feelings and comfort levels by creating opportunities for employees to gradually enter a new normal. A person can slowly begin to ease back into the office through safe, gradual exposure so that there are small wins and minor distress which they can cope with. Once they are able to overcome that, they might challenge themselves with a situation that could cause a bit of a stronger emotional response, while still remaining safe. In an office setting, this might mean allowing employees to have flexible “in-office” hours, so perhaps an employee can come into the office for a few hours at a time and gradually work their way to a longer day.
2. Create space for employees to build connections and reflect as a team.
Business leaders should be intentional about creating opportunities for employees to reflect and to simply get to know each other. While these experiences can occur through structured time to reflect on the pandemic’s impact on the business and industry, they can also occur by encouraging people to take time in their day to go for a casual walk with a colleague, grab coffee and disconnect from their screens while connecting with one another. It’s also important to remember that some employees were hired in a remote environment, so they may have never met their colleagues in-person and could be nervous about connecting with them. Intentional reflection time, together and alone, whether formal or informal, is a great way to help employees process the last year and build stronger relationships.
3. Proactively offer resources for employees to seek professional help.
More than ever, employees are demanding more comprehensive health and benefits packages that include both clinical support and behavioral healthcare. However, it can be confusing for employees to determine if they have access to these benefits, how to use them and how much they will cost. Be proactive about sharing resources for employees to navigate yet another new normal. Is online therapy an available benefit? Are there nearby community resources that employees can leverage without having to take PTO time? Are there mindfulness apps like Headspace that might be discounted for employees? These are all great resources to help people feel supported in and outside the office.
These are just a few strategies to consider as employers reimagine what returning to the office looks like. Let’s take this opportunity to rebuild company cultures around prioritizing healthy and happy employees and empowering them to do their best work.
Dr. James Wantuck, Co-founder and Chief Medical Officer at PlushCare
He received his Bachelor of Science in chemistry and neuroscience from the University of Pittsburgh, his Medical Degree from Vanderbilt, and Internal Medicine degree at Stanford. He was previously part of the faculty at VA Palo Alto and clinical instructor at Stanford Medical School.