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How managers and employees can maintain wellbeing amid COVID-19

Health and Benefits|Inclusion and Diversity|Talent|Total Rewards|Wellbeing
COVID 19 Coronavirus

By Rick Hecht , Wendy Poirier and Josy Koumans | April 9, 2020

As companies adjust to functioning in pandemic conditions, the health, resilience and wellbeing of the workforce are increasingly critical to sustain operations.

The COVID 19 pandemic is having a sweeping impact on our communities and our economy. With stay- at-home orders in effect in many locations, employers have adjusted, reduced or suspended operations, shifting workforces to remote work, where possible. The change and uncertainty have created a strain on the emotional health of the North American workforce. Even before the pandemic, emotional and mental health were top concerns of business and total rewards leaders. As companies adjust to functioning in pandemic conditions, the health, resilience and wellbeing of the workforce are increasingly critical to sustain operations.

What can managers do to support wellness in their teams? What can employees do to maintain a sense of wellbeing as work conditions change or as they shift to remote work? What can leaders do to manage through the crisis and continue to engage their teams? We’ve gathered subject matter experts in mental health and employee wellbeing, Rick Hecht and Wendy Poirier, to share perspectives and practical suggestions.

What can managers do to support their employees in these uncertain times?

Rick Hecht: Most of all, lead with empathy. Managers need to show they understand this is a life-changing time in people’s lives. Think about the employees you used to see at work or pass in the hallway. What do you really know about their lives outside of work?

During this public health crisis, people may feel worried about their own health, about their families, or about finances. Many are worried about what is happening and how they will continue to cope. With schools closed, families are trying to support their students’ education as well as their own work. Employers need to be aware of those factors while setting expectations.

Help the remote workforce continue engaging in work yet acknowledge that people face challenges. Help teams continue to connect with each other virtually, and continue to feel part of a team, because the need for social connection and the need to belong, are hard wired into our brain and our DNA.

Wendy Poirier: Managing a remote workforce and flexible workplace is something employers have struggled with for years. With evolving policies and changing requirements, it is a manager who brings a policy to life. Managers need to show genuine support. There may be stresses for a spouse or partner as workplaces shut down. People working from home may have kids around. In managing a remote team, managers need to bring more understanding and acknowledgement that working from home may be difficult.

Rick Hecht: It’s important for managers to let employees know they care. Tell your teams, “We are in this together.” Acknowledge that we are going through a tough, unprecedented time. Many people are anxious and afraid.

Be authentic by sharing some of your own thoughts and feelings. Be open with updates about what your company leadership is thinking and their strategy for getting through this time. Don’t be afraid to ask people how they feel. People may be worried about what is coming next so keep people in the loop to the extent you can.

Wendy Poirier: Managers need to begin with trust. Show genuine support for the adjusted modes of work. Be understanding, flexible and supportive. Genuinely show support for your team. Check in with each of them – listen to them. If possible, make check-ins using video. Showing up visually, at least occasionally, is important for closer connection. That may mean stepping out of your comfort zone. There will be more need for personal connections, making video connections more meaningful and needed.

Rick Hecht: Managers can help get the word out about helpful resources you already have. Remind employees about their employee assistance program (EAP) or any other mental health or emotional wellbeing resources available. Send employees regular updates to continue to remind them of these resources and encourage their use. Messaging should begin with an acknowledgement of the stressful times we are living through. Lead with an authentic, caring opening, such as: “You are important to us. We care about you and your family, and we are trying to do everything we can to help all of us manage through this health crisis.” Be sure to note: “Here are some resources to help us all cope.”

What can employees do for their own wellbeing if they are feeling anxious?

Rick Hecht: People can spend a lot of time following the news, which often has the cumulative effect of increasing anxiety. We know from numerous studies that continually checking news and social media accounts can have a negative impact on emotional wellbeing. So, with that in mind, we should try to spend less time following the news and social media. Get the information you need and try to limit consumption. Take breaks and focus on other things as well. Try to take a walk outside if possible. Exercise and being in nature have both been shown to help mitigate the effects of stress, anxiety and depression.

Wendy Poirier: To support their own wellbeing, employees can be thinking about physical health and social connectivity. “Social distancing” should be called “physical distancing.” We are social beings and physical distancing is different from social distancing. We need to continue to have social connection points with friends and colleagues.

Physical distancing does not mean not seeing anyone or not talking to people. Even if we are quarantined, we can and need to continue to have social contacts. We can establish new habits to connect visually and vocally to others. We can find ways to connect with others outside of work, such as virtual book clubs or virtual film discussions, other fun things to do virtually with others. This is a time to reach out more to colleagues and friends. Make the time to reach out. Every day.

Rick Hecht: For some, it can also be helpful to collect a list of things that are positive in their lives. Spending more time together as families can be a real positive, though sometimes it can also be a strain. It is important for people to find their own time, their own space.

Setting a schedule can help provide stability. Those working remotely from home may not log off from work at appropriate time. When you set a schedule, include downtime for yourself. Take breaks. Take time for lunch. If you can, take some time outside or take a walk. Structure time to spend with family. Maintain personal connections with friends and co-workers. This is especially important for people living alone. Loneliness can have a tremendous impact on our overall wellbeing.

As we think about the mental health of the workforce, what is an indicator that an employee may be struggling? What should managers look out for as they try to support wellbeing in their teams?

Rick Hecht: These are unprecedented times. Now is a time for checking in. Take a mental temperature. We want to take note if self-care seems to be declining. Are our colleagues taking care of themselves? Are they staying connected and engaged with others?

If you notice an employee who is withdrawing or appears to be disengaged, reach out and check in. If an employee seems to be struggling with worries or anxiety, reach out and check in. Don’t feel you have to diagnose anything or play clinician. Just being a caring, empathic manager will go a long way in helping them feel cared for. Ask how they are doing. Be authentic and share some of your own feelings of stress. Remind them of the great resources they have, including their EAP program and mental health benefits.

We are social by nature. Forced periods of isolation, like shelter-at-home and physical (social) distancing, can have a deleterious effect on our physical and mental health. In a time of crisis, we need to acknowledge the challenges and provide some comfort in addition to leadership. Employees who don’t feel supported will lose focus and are more likely to experience challenges to their mental health.

Wendy Poirier: Prior to the pandemic, we knew that most employers might have 5% of employee population experiencing mental health issues. We can expect that percentage will increase

Employers are talking much more about this topic and taking steps to provide more support. We see interest in training programs so managers and leaders can understand how to take care of their own mental health and how to support and recognize mental health issues in their teams. Financial wellbeing is also a big concern. Employers are thinking about how to provide programs that support employees in different situations. We are working actively on these topics and seeing many vendors increasing services in these areas.

In challenging periods of change or uncertainty, supporting the wellbeing of the workforce becomes especially important for sustaining engagement. HR leaders and their consulting partners can contact health, wellbeing or EAP providers about resources to support resilience and manage stress, depression, anxiety or loneliness. Some companies are providing free tools and resources, including online webinars, mindfulness training, text-therapy, peer phone support and free trial periods of their apps. This is also a good time to reach out to health management partners, telemedicine providers, and financial partners to see what else they can offer in support of a workforce under stress.


Director of Behavioral Health Management

Global Wellbeing Leader

Director of Client Management

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