Brianne Hogan
June 11, 2020 8:41 am
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No matter how old we are or how long we’ve been working, we all have questions when it comes to careers—from how to respond to a rejection letter to learning to say no when a role isn’t a good fit. That’s where Career Counselor comes in. In this weekly series, we connect with experts to answer all of your work-related questions. Because while we don’t all have the luxury of a career coach, we still deserve to grow in our careers.

For those who are fortunate to still have a job during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, it goes without saying that this experience has altered our mental health at work. Many of us continue to work from home, which means we work mostly alone and only connect with our colleagues via telecommunicating platforms (hello, Zoom meetings!).

While rolling out of bed, working in our pajamas, and creating fun teleconferencing backgrounds might’ve been fun to do a few months ago, for many of us, the anxiety and stress of the pandemic are taking a toll on our mental health. A recent study by Qualtrics shows that 75% of people say they feel more socially isolated, 67% report they have higher stress levels, and 57% note they have higher anxiety since COVID-19. This is why it’s crucial that our job is a safe and healthy place for us to work—and doesn’t add to the stress we are already feeling outside of office hours.

If you’re questioning whether you should leave your job because it’s affecting your mental health or you’re not sure whether your company is doing the right things when it comes to taking care of your wellbeing, we talked to a variety of career experts on how companies should be taking care of their employees during COVID-19. Let this information guide you to determine whether your company is taking your mental health seriously.

What are some of the biggest mistakes a company could make when it comes to handling the wellbeing of their employees during COVID-19?

“Companies are falling into two camps right now: those that are handling COVID-19 well and taking care of their employees’ mental health and those who aren’t.

“Here are a few examples of the latter: In a plumbing firm, I know the pandemic has caused the business owners and managers to panic. They’ve passed that fear onto [their] employees, as well as let their own frustrations and concerns manifest in verbal outbursts, micromanagement, and increased recreational drug use. At that firm, in particular, half of the staff resigned and looked for jobs elsewhere despite the pandemic. The company’s reputation and employment brand are likely to be damaged going forward.

“In another firm, many of the employees were furloughed but aren’t receiving regular communication, which is causing them unnecessary mental stress during what is already a challenging time. Just because your laid-off staff gets unemployment is no reason to leave them out of the loop. They want to know on a regular basis (weekly at best) what’s happening within the business, if they’re likely to get their jobs back, or if they should start searching for jobs elsewhere. The mistake many small businesses and inexperienced managers make is thinking, ‘How can I communicate with my people when I myself don’t know what’s going on?’

“Caring about your employees’ mental health during a crisis requires you as a manager to step out and above your own fears, communicate frequently, admit what you don’t know, and demonstrate that you care enough about your staff to let them into your thought process going forward. That demonstrates care. People who feel cared about are much more likely to get through the mental stresses taking place in the workplace these days.”

— Laura Handrick, contributing HR professional at Choosing Therapy and owner of an HR and business consulting agency

What’s an example of a company that cares about the mental health of their employees?

“Being the owner of a mental health practice with 32 employees, we are working hard to make sure we understand each person’s unique perspectives, needs, and concerns, and we recognize this is a very fluid situation that will need to continue to be discussed. This is a unique situation, and we know we can’t propose a one-size-fits-all solution for everyone.

“In crafting our solution, we plan to have client and therapist safety at the top of the list, and this may mean we are online only for quite some time as a result. We are exploring options of allowing therapists to do their online session in the office, should they choose to do so, and looking at all ways to make this safe for them. This would likely be our first step, but our employees would need to choose this for us to move forward with it, and we know it won’t be an option for everyone due to different circumstances. Everyone is anxious right now, and there is a good reason for this. Employee anxiety isn’t something to be squashed by employers but rather something to be listened to and potentially supported with resources from HR or their supportive services.”

— William Schroeder, therapist and director at Just Mind Counseling

What other measures should companies be taking when it comes to supporting their employees’ mental health?

“Creating psychological safety is essential so that employees know they can share about their mental health and not suffer any consequences for doing so. Managers need to convey this during one-on-one meetings by asking about employees’ wellbeing and keeping an open door to discussing. Check-ins are recommended to occur regularly, as situations change rapidly. It’s a best practice for managers to be trained on how to do this effectively so that they can convey empathy and be helpful. Many well-meaning conversations can result in invalidation or pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps comments. Managers sharing stories about their own mental health struggles is a way to be vulnerable and allow a connection. Managers will also benefit from time set aside to address their own mental health concerns and their experiences being leaders during this challenging time.”

— Danielle R. Oakley, Ph.D., consultant, leadership coach, and founder of Oakley & Associates Consulting, LLC

Many people are suffering from ‘Zoom fatigue.’ Is it okay to take a break from excessive teleconferencing?

“There’s been an uptick on video conferencing; however, there is no need to have the camera on for every meeting. Setting protocol on what meetings should implement video—such as daily team stand-ups, calls with new clients, and one-on-ones—versus which you can handle sans video—quick check-ins, calls you’re primarily listening in on, etc.—will diminish the potential of ‘Zoom fatigue.’ If you’re feeling a bit of this fatigue, share that with your team. Let them know that you’ll get a deliverable to them right after you pop out to walk your dog around the block. This level of candidness and vulnerability is sure to inspire your team.”

Carla Isabel Carstens, career coach

What are some proactive measures that companies should be taking when it comes to the mental and emotional wellbeing of their employees?

“Training coworkers how to recognize and respond to coworkers in distress is also important, as employees may not feel comfortable confiding in their managers. Companies can offer flexibilities that take the pressure off, such as varying work hours so childcare can be accommodated. Providing education about how to recognize mental health issues and ways to manage them through sleep, exercise, healthy eating, reaching out to others, and reminding them of company programs that support wellbeing is important. Offering company wellbeing sessions on resilience building can be scheduled into the workday to let employees know valuable company time is set aside for their mental health,” says Oakley.

What can an employee do if they’re feeling overwhelmed during this time?

“I oversee hiring and operations at MyCorporation, an online filing services company that assists entrepreneurs with incorporating and forming LLCs for their small businesses. We maintain a virtual open-door policy as our team members work remotely during this time. Both I and our CEO, Deborah Sweeney, have given our team members our direct cell phone numbers. We encourage our team to call us if they need anything—whether that means there’s an emergency that comes up if they feel sick or just to talk things through if they’re feeling stressed. If the mental health of an employee is compromised, we want to help out and will work to find a solution that benefits them and their specific situation.

“I would not recommend leaving your job during this time, especially if you are a key member of the team and many rely on you to get certain jobs done. Talk to your manager about what is going on and how you are feeling. Leaders want to help and can help their teams to get through this difficult time together.”

— Dana Case, director of operations at MyCorporation.com

What’s an easy thing that a company can do right now to help alleviate an employee’s anxiety?

“Remind employees about their vacation days. It’s easy to forget that just because you can’t travel, it doesn’t mean you can’t take a well-deserved day off and lounge around at home. Alternatively, implement summer Fridays, even if your company historically hasn’t participated. Allowing your associates to get a jump start on the weekend can lead to heightened productivity the following week,” says Oakley.