We were all set to get back to normal, but now with the increase in COVID-19 cases due to the Delta variant, we are backing down. People are disguising themselves again per CDC recommendations, vaccines are more widely mandated, and many companies are delaying plans to return to the office.
The Delta variant created renewed uncertainty about returning to work, reopening schools, travel, childcare support, and more. We have already seen an increase in symptoms of anxiety, depression and PTSD due to the seemingly endless changes brought on by the pandemic.
Related: A New Side Effect of the Delta Variant: “Fear of Meeting”
Here are four ways employers can support their employees’ mental health during this uncertain time:
1. Have empathy
Chances are, most employees will feel uncomfortable returning to the office after working remotely and being away from others for so long. Recent studies have shown that working remotely increases productivity, so there is no need to rush to the office. When employees really don’t need to be in person, indicate that your employees can return to their own pace when the office reopens.
Another pain point for employees as the Delta variant increases is child care. Working parents have sought to balance their work and family lives throughout the pandemic, and Delta’s arrival presents a major setback. Many daycares are closing, forcing working parents to once again rethink their child care strategies. Some schools are delaying openings, asking children to self-quarantine, or canceling offers such as transportation and after-school programs. Give working parents the opportunity to discuss their challenges and concerns with their managers and give them the opportunity to be present for their children.
Employers should also encourage their employees to create boundaries while working remotely to prevent their work from bleeding into their personal lives. Without the separation of home and office, it’s harder for everyone to decompress and get away from the computer. Limits could include not sending late-night emails and designating a time for a non-work lunch. These first significant steps make it possible to grant employees autonomy in their daily life while showing real consideration for their well-being.
2. Open clear lines of communication
Finding solutions to reduce uncertainty can help allay the worries of your employees. Management needs to create a strong line of communication so that employees are not left wondering what the next decision will be regarding return to work, office masking and vaccine requirements. Develop a timeline for communicating these updates and make sure employees have a platform to speak up and ask questions. Weekly company-wide meetings can be a great resource for employees to feel heard and to get their questions answered.
3. Provide the right resources
Mental health should be an ongoing priority for total well-being, not something that is only addressed during hardship. Audit your company’s mental health offerings to find out which benefits have high usage rates and which don’t. This information can help HR professionals create a benefits plan that allows people to select the type of mental health support that’s right for them.
Access to inclusive and culturally appropriate mental health care is vital. When seeking mental health care – and health care in general – people feel more comfortable speaking with someone who understands their needs. For example, LGBTQ + people are much more comfortable knowing that their clinicians are part of their community or accept it. Race and intersectionality are also extremely important factors to keep in mind. Make sure that your health plan’s network of mental health care providers includes clinicians who are representative of your employees.
Other non-traditional resources could include a company-wide agreement to refrain from scheduling Friday calls or instituting mental health days. There is a plethora of resources out there that, no matter how small, can be tailored to your work culture and can make a substantial difference to morale.
4. Foster an environment that encourages emotion
Everyone has days when they are overwhelmed; sometimes enough that their co-workers can see on a call that they are having difficulty. Management must constantly create a comfortable space for employees to share their feelings without fear. Simple actions like taking time on calls to ask how teammates are doing and checking in with employees who have demonstrated a change in behavior can make a significant difference.
Since sharing struggles in the workplace is traditionally considered taboo, employees may feel relieved to be approached about how they are doing rather than bringing up the subject themselves. Asking how someone is “really doing” improves working relationships and gives employees a voice when they need it.
There is no doubt that the mental health crisis has intensified in recent weeks and is weighing on our personal and professional lives. Employers must continue to make the mental health and well-being of their employees a priority as we move through the next chapter of this pandemic together.
Dr Nikole Benders-Hadi is Medical Director of Behavioral Health at Grand Rounds Health and Doctor On Demand.