A Time For Kindness: Supporting Employee Mental Health in the Era of COVID-19

By: Julia Gorham and Dan Waldman

Organizations benefit from actively fostering kindness. In workplaces where acts of kindness become the norm, the spillover effects can multiply fast. When people receive an act of kindness, they pay it back, research shows — and not just to the same person, but often to someone entirely new. This leads to a culture of generosity in an organization.[1]

Adam Grant’s article in The New York Times on April 19, 2021, struck a chord. The title: “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing”. Maybe it’s a lawyer thing—lawyers often feel blah or maybe it’s particularly acute in these COVID times…. This May 2021 is Mental Health Awareness Month and, having spoken to many clients and peers across the business spectrum, mental health and the non-physical impacts of the past 18 months are as relevant to managing employee wellbeing as the potential physical effects of COVID-19. As global employers think about returning to work, a “reset” of workplace cultures is now both a practical imperative as well as a forward-looking strategic opportunity.

How employers manage, or at the very least are mindful of, wider concerns being felt or experienced by their employees raises some huge questions about the extent to which they should and can understand and get involved proactively in helping employees with the non-physical effects of the pandemic. Employees do not want or may be offended by excessive intrusion by their employer into their personal lives.

However, on the flip side, a failure by an employer to take steps to understand and protect employee health and safety, particularly where there are warning signs or where an employer should reasonably know that an issue may exist, could lead to material risks to the business, as well as to other employees or even members of the public in the worst case.

Rae Ringel, a certified executive coach and founder of The Ringel Group, stresses the importance of employers taking the time to ask their employees what they need during this time. She notes that this allows for employers to offer resources and support in the ways that their professionals need, not in the ways that leadership may project that they need. Taking this human-centered approach and cultivating empathy within your organization allows for your employees to be heard, increasing the likelihood that the new ideas and processes will be embraced and appreciated.

You will hear a variety of concerns from your employees. Below we outline some ways in which COVID-19 has impacted people and some things people may be feeling. Of course, these are not conditions to be “fixed” by employers. Rather, they should take the time to consider the broad impact and give a more rounded people response, as Rae suggests above.

The clearest impact may be on employees who are concerned for their own personal physical well-being at the workplace and that of their families or close members of their social circles. A lot has been written about keeping employees physically safe from the impact of COVID-19, but what may be more pervasive and long lasting may be supporting employees’ issues of worry, anxiety, stress, and fear arising out of or related to circumstances in which employees have found themselves during this period.

Let’s look at loss, or “grief” as Adam Grant writes in his article.

This pandemic has taken members of our families from us, often with insufficient time or ability to make it home to say goodbye, has forced people to say goodbye to loved ones in funerals held over Zoom, and has created both physical and emotional distance with those who are often individuals’ greatest sources of support in times of trouble. Grief counselling as well as time off for compassionate grounds are some clear options to help in this scenario.

For many there has also been a sense of loss of control. Things that were routine pre-Covid and contributed to a large part of wellbeing and happiness may no longer be possible. Employers must address the impact of this on employees’ workplace engagement. Taking performance management or disciplinary action as a result of a drop off in engagement or focus may not be the best method to re-set effectiveness in view of the current context.

Programs that help employees regain a sense of agency, ownership, and control over their lives and focus on their core work strengths will no doubt be welcome. In addition, giving back to the wider community can help employees feel more positive and engaged more generally; working with your employees on outreach or corporate social responsibility initiatives at this time may provide a welcome sense of community and collaboration.

Employees’ financial well-being
At the same time that many employees may be suffering anxiety around their employment status and the financial impact of losing their jobs, pay cuts, access to paid sick leave (particularly relevant in the US, which differs significantly from the legally protected paid sick leave offered in many other countries globally), employees may also be under greater personal financial strain due to reduced work hours, higher medical costs, family members not working, or dependents needing support.

Many large employers set up financial assistance funds to which employees can apply to alleviate critical financial pinch points. Childcare cost has been one of the largest issues faced by working parents, many of whom relied upon social childcare or parental support, which likely fell away as social distancing measures took effect and lockdowns came into play.

While it is not an employer’s role to manage employee financial concerns, it is important not to assume that everyone is fine—paying closer attention to countries where the living wage is low and where there is little social security safety net may be helpful. In addition, thinking about whether adding / diverting resources to programs for paid time off, childcare subsidies, or cost of living allowances may be worth considering.

Recovering from isolation
Apart from the financial aspects of managing work and life in lockdown, many working families have struggled with long periods of proximity in often small spaces with multiple generations creating a lack of personal space and often quite a bit of noise (let alone poor internet connection). Some, on the other hand, may face separation from their families and friends. These situations can both take a toll on an otherwise stable and resilient person.

Resilience itself is under pressure. Someone who previously was able to juggle many different balls and effectively multi-task may now find that they are disproportionately pressurized by a lower number of tasks or demands on their time. It’s important not to assume that how employees worked two years ago are the same now—ask line managers to stop, check in, help re-prioritize.

Employee wellness programs
Many companies are already running employee wellbeing programs looking at managing stress and work / life balance during pandemic times. It is also worth considering if more skills based management approaches can be refreshed and reviewed. Don’t assume that someone staying quiet is fine—they may be until they are not. For those employees in safety focused roles or with access to members of the public this becomes particularly acute. However, it can apply to all of us—a lack of concentration when crossing the street or driving a car can have critical outcomes.

Consider offering counselling and Employee Assistance Program services as well as providing for medical interventions and information about where to go for substance abuse, sleep deprivation, gambling, or debt for example. There are a plethora of services and charities available, and employers do not need to provide them in-house but helping with clear information and guiding employees to resources may make the difference when someone is struggling. At the end of the spectrum is suicide prevention. Ensuring that the workplace is not the catalyst for any extreme action is every employer’s concern.

Competing personal-professional demands on employees
One emerging issue is a clash of expectations. As some countries start to emerge from the worst of the pandemic and re-open societies and borders, there will necessarily be a business push to increase productivity and profit. At the same time, we anticipate that the opening of society may finally be the time when employees want to take some time to rest, recover, and recuperate or to reconnect with family and friends they have not seen for months / years. This may lead to the two pulling in opposite directions.

We recommend that businesses anticipate and plan for employees wanting to take periods away from work and find strategies to allow for scheduling that accommodates this. For those located where borders have been closed, we anticipate that those periods may be longer than in the past and may include lengthy periods of quarantine, which is a huge physical, mental, and financial toll. The empathy that businesses display in managing their employees in the immediate term will have an impact on the talent question as those who feel pushed into a corner or unsupported may choose to vote with their feet.

In summary, employers can consider:

Holistic understanding of the impact of the pandemic of non-work related aspects of your employees’ lives;
Ask your employees what they need. Rae Ringel suggested the following as some potential questions and considerations:
How can we best support you as you return to work?
What are some particular challenges that you are currently facing?
What do you need most from us right now?
What have you learned about the ways in which your employees work best during COVID?
If you were to be accessing your employees’ greatest potential right now, where would they need to be working from and how would they be working?
Flexible programs to facilitate re-entry to work while supporting personal life needs and incorporating the feedback received from the above questions;
Skills workshops / resilience training;
Support networks: financial, mental and physical health and wellbeing, counselling / EAP, addiction etc.
Planning ahead to anticipate periods of leave (consider paid and unpaid) and how employees may want to manage their time / alter their working lives—don’t assume or apply a one -size fits all approach.

We’d like to give a special thank you to Rae Ringel for her invaluable thoughts as we drafted this piece. For more from Rae, please visit her recent articles on Designing the Post-Pandemic Meeting and How to Nail a Hybrid Presentation. If you’d like to learn more and further discuss how you may incorporate these important topics in your own workplace, please reach out to Julia and Dan, or anyone else in Seyfarth’s leading International Employment team.

[1] Sezer, Ovul, Kelly Nault, and Nadav Klein, “Don’t Underestimate the Power of Kindness at Work,” Boston: Harvard Business Review, May 2021, https://hbr.org/2021/05/dont-underestimate-the-power-of-kindness-at-work.

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