By Teresa Williams, MSW, LCSW, Managing Partner, HomeCare Connect
While workers’ compensation leaders deal with the logistics of employees moving back into offices, they need to pay particular attention to employee mental health and well-being. With vaccinations available and communities re-opening, the tendency is to think of employees as back to their pre-pandemic selves. They are not.
Our teams have endured a prolonged, extremely stressful event, one that is still going on to some degree.
Some people have lost their spouses, parents, other family members, friends, and even children to COVID-19. They are grieving. Layoffs, furloughs, and permanent business closures caused severe financial damage to families. Some may have lost their homes.
Many employees cared for their children fulltime, monitored online learning, and lived in unusually crowded households. Still others were completely isolated.
A lot of people, especially those in healthcare professions, worked long, hard hours with few breaks. Some retail workers faced angry, sometimes violent, shoppers and are traumatized and exhausted.
Twenty-five percent of essential workers were diagnosed with a mental health disorder during the pandemic, according to the American Psychology Association (APA)’s Stress in AmericaTM One Year Later, A New Wave of Pandemic Health Concerns.
APA’s The Stress in AmericaTM: January 2021 Stress Snapshot, conducted by The Harris Poll, found that 84 percent of adults felt at least one emotion associated prolonged stress, especially feelings of anxiety, sadness, and anger.
The sudden shift to work-from-home (WFH) caused stress, and now transitioning back to the office is creating its own unique anxiety. Once routine activities, such as arranging childcare, commuting, getting up earlier, dressing for work, and traveling for business, now feel overwhelming after adjusting to a pandemic schedule.
During a recent Limeade Institute Employee Care Report survey of more than 4,500 office workers who had previously worked onsite and now worked remotely, every single respondent expressed anxiety over returning to the workplace. They cited exposure to the virus, losing the flexibility that WFH had afforded them, commuting, and wearing a mask as the top four reasons.
Sadly, only 55 percent felt their organizations cared about them. When it came to returning to the workplace, more than half said their company had not asked for their input about return-to-work polices or procedures.
A more fragile workforce is returning to the office. Now, more than ever, is the time to create a culture of caring. Here are some ways:
Uncertainty breeds anxiety and without information, people will make up stuff, mostly negative. Prevent catastrophizing by communicating.
C-Suite leaders may feel like they are over-communicating, but that’s ok. Once a week is a good frequency for hearing from the President or CEO. Considering the ongoing concern with exposure to the virus, tell staff what the company is doing to keep them safe, such as:
- Following the science and the sources used
- Flexible schedules
- Social-distancing arrangements
At the same time, communicate any company events and plans, such as establishing committees for returning to work, hiring freezes to preserve current jobs, or landing a new client, and how a global economic event like the micro-chip shortage impacted your industry. Remember, people are worried about their losing their jobs, too.
Always project a forward-looking mindset, encourage everyone to do their part, and remind employees how important they are to you, the injured workers you serve, and to the company’s overall success.
Managers and supervisors should convey the same messages in separate weekly calls, engaging their teams in what the news means to their divisions or departments. Smaller groups make it easier for individuals to raise concerns and suggest ideas. In addition, through one-on-one calls, supervisors can check on individuals, possibly detect signs of anxiety, depression, or other issues, and explore work-related solutions or suggest the company’s behavioral health resources if appropriate.
Be one of the companies that solicits input from front-line workers. These are the people who are most affected by your return-to-the-office policies. Engagement means talking, listening, actively considering, and putting feasible ideas into place. You may not be able to do everything that is suggested but you can do some of them. And you can provide a non-judgmental space for managers, supervisors and those who are not managers and supervisors to discuss things like:
- What’s the best date to return to the workplace?
- What would make employees feel physically safe? Masks? Vaccination incentives? Temperature checks? COVID tests?
- What kind of office layouts work for social distancing?
- What does flexibility look like? Working two days from home, three in the office?
- Traffic increased during the last 15 months; would shifting hours help? What would that look like?
Promote Mental Health and Wellness
Just as wellness programs talk about and encourage physical fitness, bring mental health into the open by educating about it, modeling it, and talking about it. Remove the stigma.
It’s good for senior leaders, managers, and supervisors to share the challenges they are facing and the steps they take to preserve their well-being, whether it’s through counseling, meditation, exercise, practicing yoga, or the great new app they’ve found.
Remind people of the employee assistance program. Often only considered for treating substance abuse, many EAPs focus on all kinds of things that can interfere with an employee’s ability to work effectively, including other mental health care, financial problems, and managing child or elder care. Employees need to understand that EAP is both available and anonymous. If the organization cannot offer an EAP, county health departments, churches, Veterans organizations, Jewish family services, and Catholic social services often have similar offerings.
Educating supervisors to recognize signs of someone struggling is a good idea and can help someone receive needed treatment. Employers are well served by having a set of on-demand webinars on a variety of mental health and wellness topics, from practicing gratitude to domestic violence, substance abuse, and education on the various forms of mental illness.
Continuously promote the behavioral/mental health resources. The employee who doesn’t need anything this month may need it three months from now.
Re-think Positions and Policies
The companies in this industry that resisted work-from-home before the pandemic pivoted to it very quickly. Those that had rejected telehealth before 2020 quickly ramped up. Workers’ comp proved it could change, much faster than anyone ever thought.
Now, we need to make mental wellness in the workplace as high of a priority as physical safety. And we need to do this quickly. The culture of caring needs to extend beyond the injured worker to the people who care for the injured worker and those who manage that care, who manage the claim, and those who manage the cost of the claim. This industry needs to attract young people who want to feel like they’re doing good be treated well while they’re doing it.
Thinking outside the box will take us to the mentally healthy new-normal workplace. As we review employee wellness programs, we should consider the stressors and determine how to best address them. Will a hybrid approach of three days in the office, two days at home reduce commute stress? Can some positions WFH effectively? What stress relievers can be brought to the office for those who must or chose to work there: a gym, massage therapist, or a fitness trainer?
It took a few weeks or months for people to adjust to working from home. As new schedules become routine, anxiety will dissipate. Once solutions are identified, leaders can act build a culture of caring to restore resiliency and support our teammates.
About HomeCare Connect
Specializing in catastrophic cases, HomeCare Connect manages the quality and cost of home health care, post-acute care, medical equipment and supplies, home modification, and prosthetics and orthotics for workers’ compensation patients and payers. The Inc. 5000 and the Orlando Business Journal’s lists of fast-growing, privately held companies have both captured the company’s rapid growth. Based in Winter Park, Florida, near Orlando, the company serves clients nationally and can be reached at www.homecareconnect.com or 855-223-2228.
HomeCare Connect is a WorkCompWire ad partner.
This is NOT a paid placement.