COVID-19 and Mental Health: How Employers Can Support Their Teams

A woman walks outside to mitigate COVID-19 induced stress.

There is no question that life changed in March 2020. Our normal routines were upended as an unknown virus presented risks to our very existence. That’s a heavy load for people to carry. Some have found a way to thrive, but many continue to suffer from the emotional impact of the COVID-19 outbreak.


Virtual Workplace Stressors

One direct result of the pandemic has been that large swaths of the workforce have gone virtual. This change brings its own set of stressors. For example, a study conducted by the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) identified six workplace stressors that cause “psychological distress” among virtual workers. These include:

  1. Technology

Frustration with technology has become part of the daily routine for those working from home. Problems with video calls are especially common and cause consternation among 13.6% of people feeling high levels of distress.

  1. Distrust

Being closely monitored or otherwise feeling that you are not trusted by your manager is another frequent stressor. Autonomy is key to well-being, performance and workplace satisfaction. Over 21% agreed that they are under heavy supervision.

  1. Underload

We are all familiar with being overloaded at work and the stress that can bring. The SIOP study found that the opposite is also true. At least 12% reported feeling stressed by not having enough to do or not being able to do some of the work they were doing pre-pandemic.

  1. Job Insecurity

Worries about job loss were also noted as a major stressor in the SIOP survey. More than 26% felt that job loss was imminent, while 33% were concerned about the future prospects of their job. The lack of new employment opportunities adds to levels of distress.

  1. Poor Communication

With more workers using multiple and different tools to communicate with colleagues and clients, there are greater chances of miscommunication. About 14% of those surveyed say they were stressed by rude messages from others and/or by having their own messages misconstrued.

  1. In-Home Interference

Many families are juggling work with childcare and virtual school. Finding a quiet space free of distractions can be a challenge. More than 18% said they were distressed by having household and family interruptions during work.


Tracking Psychological Impacts

The Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) conducted a tracking poll early on, in July 2020, to gauge the mental health impacts of COVID-19 among adults. Some of the key findings reported by participants include:

  • increased worry and stress (53%)
  • trouble sleeping (36%)
  • feelings of anxiety (34.5%)
  • symptoms of depression (36.5%)
  • increased alcohol and drug use (12%)
  • worries about their child’s social/emotional development (67%)

Approximately 50% those who remain employed at the same level of income are experiencing negative mental health impacts. Those who have lost jobs and income tally 58%.


Too Many Video Calls

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) published an article to explain “The reason Zoom calls drain your energy.” It turns out that we must focus more intently than we have to during a traditional face-to-face encounter.

Our brains need to work harder at interpreting facial expressions and vocal cues when engaging on screen. It is hard to relax and have a natural conversation. Especially when the other participants are on mute and slow to respond. That can leave us feeling as if our colleagues are disinterested and inhospitable.

Meanwhile, we’re worried about what we look like on camera. We’re apprehensive about being watched. According to the BBC article, “You are on stage, so there comes the social pressure and feeling like you need to perform. Being performative is nerve-wracking and more stressful.”

The solution? Limiting video calls when possible. If you can’t, then be sure take a few minutes to do a friendly pulse check with the other participants. Chances are they are equally fatigued by these calls, as well as the other impacts of COVID-19.


What Employers Can Do to Help

One of the best things a company can do to help employees navigate the impacts of COVID-19 is to empower managers to level up and become true leaders during this time of change. That is the number one item on a list of seven best practices offered by HR Executive magazine.

Maintaining consistent communication is also key, with the suggestion to go as far as daily check in calls with your core team. Sprinklr, a customer experience management firm, advocates for leaders to have daily “Heartbeat” calls.

The goal is to humanize the workplace, knowing that we are all sharing a very stressful time. But there are limits. Leaders are advised to be respectful of employee privacy and confidentiality. Other tips include providing flexibility to manage work and life priorities, encouraging “intentional wellness” through apps and webinars, and continuing to support professional development.

Thrive NYC, a mental health initiative of the Mayor’s Office in the City of New York, published a “COVID-19 Mental Health Guide for Employers.” This document is highly prescriptive with checklists and policy templates, as well as a sidebar on workplace mental health inequities affecting small businesses, frontline workers and people of color.


Returning to the Physical Workspace

There will be companies that decide stay virtual, while others are already planning for the day teams can meet together in person again. However, the office of the future will be very different.

The American Psychological Association (APA) published an article about what the workplace will look and feel like going forward. Environmental psychologists have found their niche in facing this challenge, applying new research around what people will want and need to feel confident about returning to an office. The same goes for schools, retail stores, museums and all of our favorite places.

A key feature – in addition to the safety measures we’ve come to expect – will be that of trust. The highly collaborative open workspace will be a relic from pre-pandemic days. When we are together again, it will be in structured settings made to feel safe, yet also humane.


What’s Next?

COVID-19 has shined a spotlight on the need for better mental health care. It’s taken some of the stigma away and opened up a dialogue. Not all companies will have a “Happier Coach” like Sprinklr does, but they can increase investment in organizational psychology and well-being.

Learn how you can be on the forefront of creating emotionally healthy workplaces where people and businesses thrive. Explore the USC Online Master of Science in Applied Psychology today.



HR Executive