Scott Sunderman, Head of Assistance at Collinson, a global leader in the provision of medical, security and travel risk management services, looks at the importance of providing mental health support to employees as workforces begin their return to work — given the psychological affect the pandemic may have had on them.
Cultivating a Positive and Safe Workplace Has Become a Necessity
With the relaxation of lockdown rules and workplaces beginning to open their doors, employers need to find ways to guarantee staff wellbeing. Focus has largely been on the physical impact of returning to work; what to do if an employee displays symptoms, how to engineer fewer staff in an office at once, and how to implement workplace distancing. And that’s rightly so. But employers also need to understand the disruption COVID-19 has caused to people personally as well as professionally — and the impact it will have had on their mental health. If they’re asking employees to return to work, they will need to take this into consideration — and it will be to their detriment if they don’t provide adequate support.
First and foremost, the past few months have put people through an upheaval most will not have experienced before. Self-isolating, keeping away from loved ones, or even working from home full-time rather than getting out and going to the office, will have taken its toll on the mental health of a lot of employees. It’s no coincidence that downloads for ‘mindfulness’ apps increased by 25% during the week of March 29th which was for many the second week of lockdown. And, even as people go back to work, these fears haven’t been quelled. There is still much uncertainty and anxiety around the virus: How to safely travel to and be at work? Are we headed for a second curve? Will those who have already had COVID-19 be immune? Will our country need to go into lockdown again and, if so, what will that mean for me and my family? All these questions will be playing on the minds of most of your employees anyway. And one of the biggest worries of all will be around the certainty of their job and continued employment.
Many businesses have only been able to survive the pandemic by putting staff on furlough — in some cases with salaries supported by governments — but in others, not. Some will have been asked to take ‘voluntary’ pay cuts for the foreseeable future, others reduced hours while some have sadly lost their jobs. If affected by any of these scenarios, staff are likely to be anxious about their finances, could be resentful that they were chosen over others and might be worrying what impact it will have on their career prospects in the future. Furthermore, as well as hitting the employees directly affected, their colleagues are likely to have spent the past few months nervously waiting to see if they are next in line. This doubt over the future of their job security is sure to have chipped away at the psychological contract employees have with their employers.
A psychological contract — the unwritten bond between a worker and their company — is forged with an employer when an employee starts a new job. The contract — or bond — is strengthened by elements such as trust, appreciation, promotions, and pay rises. But, even in normal circumstances, this contract can be broken over time in lieu of the above. A strong psychological bond leads to happy, productive staff who represent the company well, as well as a good culture. A broken one, however, can lead to poor performance, bad customer service or the employee leaving altogether. By and large, the choices employers had to make to withstand the pandemic were no fault of their own, but they need to be aware there will be broken psychological contracts as a result.
Investing in Mental Health Support for Employees
Employers need to be prepared for the ramifications of all the above and invest in support for mental health as much as they would for helping employees with physical illness. Many companies won’t have the resources or expertise to provide this in-house and, in a lot of circumstances, it would be inappropriate for them to do so. But this is where third party providers can help.
“Many organizations have opted to have Collinson provide a Covid-19 Hotline which would allow an employee to have a confidential conversation with a medical professional or a clinical psychologist for mental health support allowing us to provide clear and cogent advice and support,” said David Sarafinas, VP of Travel Risk Management at Collinson.
Companies would do well to inform employees about organizations like Heads Together and its partners which are there to lend their support at times like these with immediate 24/7 support no matter what the issue. And, just as many companies provide private healthcare programmes, they could look to offer mental health support services such as mental health first aiders and counselling support available, so they can receive the best advice and care.
What the company can do internally, is to note that repair is best done by kind actions. During lockdown, social gatherings will have stopped, but HR teams should resume initiatives like morning yoga sessions, football after work, or even team drinks as soon as it’s safe to do so. All are extremely worthy of the investment when it comes to strengthening that psychological bond and getting the most from staff. By going above and beyond in this area, with imagination and effective communication, employees can be brought inside the organizational family again.
A company is only as strong as its staff, and their mental health should always be a priority. But now, more than ever, employees will be relying on their employers to do the right thing and provide adequate levels of support as they return to work. Whether that is done through pandemic hotlines, virtual access to therapists, social activities, or regular communication around how the business is recovering — all are necessary to happy, healthy staff and a strong culture to survive the pandemic.