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Protect Your Workforce from the “Other Pandemic”

Feb 15, 2021
Deb Muller

The COVID-19 pandemic and workplace fallout effects are impacting virtually every company and its employees. Millions of employees are trying to stay productive in isolation while also managing children’s education and caring for relatives in high-risk groups. According to JAMA experts, a “second wave” is heading our way in the form of rising mental health and substance abuse issues connected to COVID-19. Business leaders are wondering what can be done to protect the workforce from this “other pandemic.”

Women especially are caught up in the squeeze of trying to manage competing priorities. CARE research says women are nearly three times as likely as men to report mental health issues due to the pandemic, citing unpaid caregiver burdens and job insecurity as sources of stress. McKinsey’s most recent Women in the Workplace report sounds an alarm, noting that one and four Psychologist having session with her patient in her private consulting room-1women are considering leaving their jobs or reducing focus on their careers. Male employees are at risk too, but the additional pressure on women threatens to eradicate gains corporate America has made in promoting gender diversity over the past several years.

As a leader, you’re in a unique position to help all of your employees get through the other pandemic. Here are some ways you can help.

Get Personal with Employees to Destigmatize Mental Health Struggles

Employees can be reluctant to ask for help because of the stigma attached to mental health and substance abuse issues. Ironically, in times like these, when the need for relief is highest, they may avoid asking for assistance because they’re afraid their employer will see it as a weakness.

But everyone struggles at some point. During a pandemic that has killed more than a million people worldwide and unleashed unprecedented economic and social dislocation, it’s normal to feel stressed out. One of the most effective ways leaders can address this stigma is to set a good example and share your own experiences with mental health issues.

It doesn’t have to be deeply personal. A story about using PTO for “mental health days” or sharing how you de-stress can reassure stressed-out employees. Talking about how you overcame a stressful period in your life lets employees know that what they’re feeling is normal and that it’s okay to ask for help.

 Use Data to Read Between the Lines

If you want to protect employees during this critical time, you need to know who requires help. While mental health is deeply emotional, you may be surprised to find data can play a role in this equation. If your HR team uses people analytics, that’s a great place to start. This data can give you insights into productivity levels, PTO use, etc., that you can be used to identify struggling employees who may not be comfortable speaking up.

One thing to keep in mind: mental health issues aren’t always signaled by productivity drops or increased absences. An employee who is intensely stressed about the possibility of losing their job in an economic downturn may focus on work to an unhealthy degree, refusing to take a day off and putting in too many hours to demonstrate commitment.

Employees can be suspicious about people analytics, perceiving it as a surveillance tool, but most use people analytics to better understand workforce trends and make improvements to keep employees safe. Especially when addressing a topic like mental health that may be difficult to discuss openly – tools like employee analytics can help you read between the lines.

Make Sure Managers Are in Regular Contact with Employees

Many companies and/or departments are working remotely 100% of the time, limiting small touch points between managers and employees. Managers still need to interact with employees often to make sure they’re okay.

Some businesses are keeping team members engaged with activities like virtual happy hours and other online social events to maintain camaraderie. Others hold weekly team meetings to review projects and assess how employees are holding up.

These are all good practices, but it’s also important to make sure managers are reaching out on an individual level too. Nearly a third (29%) of employees wish organizations would act with more empathy. Personal connections go a long way in showing the empathy employees desire. The best approach is for managers to be proactive, communicating frequently, letting employees know exactly what type of help is available and precisely how to access benefits.

Help Women Overcome Their Distinct Challenges

A recent Wall Street Journal piece on the pandemic’s disproportionate economic impact on women noted that some business leaders believe “worrying about employee burnout is a luxury they can’t afford right now.” But now is the perfect opportunity for leaders to step up and lay the groundwork for a more equitable and inclusive workplace.

Even before the pandemic, millions of working women had to deal with the “second shift,” taking on the responsibilities of full-time paid work and doing most of the caregiving after work. That makes women uniquely vulnerable to being overwhelmed during the pandemic. You can help by offering support.

EAP programs often include counseling and childcare options, which can help women who are struggling find the help they need. Consider offering flexible work schedules, which can also ease the time crunch many are experiencing. In this way, you can help overwhelmed employees and safeguard the gender diversity gains your company has made.

We Really Are All in This Together

You’ve heard it in countless TV ads and maybe even over the public address system at your local supermarket, “We’re all in this together.” It may sound trite due to constant repetition, but it’s true. We really are all in this together, and the only way out is through.

No doubt, you’ve faced many challenges this year. You’ve had to take extraordinary steps to protect your company and keep your employees physically safe from a contagious disease. Ensuring that your staff is safe during the “other pandemic” by connecting them with the resources they need to maintain a healthy mental state is just as important. Take the time to check in and make sure your employees really are okay – not just telling you that.

Deb Muller
Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, employee relations case management and investigations software that combines documentation, process, and human expertise so organizations can meet the challenge of managing employee relations in the modern world.