As the coronavirus emerged in early 2020, millions of workers around the world retreated to their homes. Those lucky enough to have a formal home office settled in easily. Others rushed to create makeshift offices in kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms – disrupting their households in the process. As the pandemic drags on, with no end in sight, some employees in this new virtual workforce continue to struggle.
Stressors, Worries and Mental Health Impacts
An Employee Well-Being Study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) in the spring of 2020 found that up to 35 percent of American workers were already experiencing some symptoms of depression due to COVID-19. An even higher percentage reported feeling burnt out and emotionally drained from their work.
Remote workers are concerned about being undervalued by not being in an office where they can physically prove their dedication to the job. As such, they are working harder and keeping longer hours, which further blurs the distinction between home and work. Feelings of loneliness and isolation are also prevalent. Yet only seven percent of those surveyed have sought mental health care.
Paychex – a provider of payroll, human resources and benefits outsourcing services – conducted a similar survey which found that 54 percent of workers felt uncomfortable talking about mental health with management. Some feared they would be fired, furloughed or passed over for a promotion if they shared their concerns. Looking ahead, 73 percent of those surveyed have worries about a second wave of the coronavirus and its potential impacts on their work.
Five Elements of a Psychologically Healthy Virtual Workplace
These studies speak to the need for companies to do whatever they can to keep their employees emotionally healthy and fulfilled during this unusual time in their careers.
The American Psychological Association (APA) identifies five practices that create a healthy and productive working environment – all centered on a foundation of open and transparent communication.
In choosing the winners of its annual Psychologically Healthy Workplace (PHWP) Awards, the organization evaluates:
- Work-Life Balance policies such as flexible work arrangements and resources to help employees succeed outside of work.
- Health and Safety programs that support worker productivity by preventing, assessing and treating risks to physical and mental health.
- Employee Growth and Development initiatives for skills growth, new experiences and other learning opportunities.
- Employee Recognition programs – formal and informal – that improve worker satisfaction and engagement by acknowledging and rewarding good work by individuals and teams.
- Employee Involvement opportunities that give workers a sense of empowerment and ownership through shared decision making and greater autonomy.
Five Signs of a Psychologically Unhealthy Virtual Workplace
On the other end of the spectrum are so-called “toxic workplaces” that take a negative toll on their employees’ emotional well-being and mental health. Just because these workplaces may have moved online during COIVD-19 doesn’t change their nature. In fact, it could make things worse. An article from Business Insider points out these five danger signs:
- Lack of communication and transparency from leaders and managers about changes at the company, including layoffs, pay cuts and other concerns.
- No respect for work-life balance, expecting employees to be “always on” because they are staying home to stay safe.
- Micromanagement and monitoring practices that infringe on employee privacy and eliminate any sense of trust and autonomy.
- Cyberbullying and harassment via email, chat or other forms of virtual communication – all of which are rife with opportunities for missteps and mixed messages.
- Lack of social engagement and personal connections with colleagues outside of the day-to-day business concerns.
How to Create a Supportive Working Environment for Well-Being
The independent workplace certification group Great Place to Work® (GPTW) shares several helpful tips for leaders seeking to support their employees during COVID-19. The advice comes from a place of humanity, with a goal of leveraging company values in ways that help workers now and strengthen the workplace for the future. Some of these ideas include:
- Let employees know that the company understands their productivity may lag at times.
- Create a “crisis fund” to help employees who are struggling financially.
- Be open, honest and transparent in formal – and informal – communications.
- Schedule time to talk to employees, without an agenda. Allow them to share their thoughts.
- Remind employees about resources that the company offers for mental health and other concerns.
- Most important, let employees know that the company cares about them and their families.
Of course, as the Harvard Business Review reminds us, mental issues are just as common in the C-suite as they among lower-level employees. In addition to creating an accepting and supportive culture, executive leaders can make mental health training and resource groups available to all team members. They can encourage more flexibility in planning work hours and time off, as well as encouraging managers to “reframe performance reviews” to be less focused on goals that were set pre-pandemic. Now can also be a good time to survey employees and ask what they want and need to succeed in the new normal.
Considerations When Reopening the Workplace
The APA advises employers to apply psychology to their reopening strategies, to help workers feel better about returning to the physical workplace. That means giving employees some control over coming back into the office, helping them reassimilate with new routines, and giving them a say in physical distancing and other safety decisions.
When it comes to specifics about safety and wellness, the World Health Organization (WHO) has a dedicated page of FAQs on their website. These questions and answers center on employer and employee rights, risk mitigation, legal compliance, and practical measures such as masking, temperature checks and ventilation.
What Does the Future Look Like?
This is the one question that is yet to be answered. What we do know is that employee mental health has taken center stage, emerging from the shadows by way of a shared human experience. You can play an important role in moving the needle forward, with impactful and lasting changes. Find out how an online Master of Science in Applied Psychology at USC can help!
APA PHWP Awards