COVID-19 reached into the most basic aspects of daily life—handshakes, going to work, spending time with loved ones, and amid it all, Americans’ mental wellbeing.
To call the coronavirus pandemic a disruptor may be an understatement. COVID-19 reached into the most basic aspects of daily life—handshakes, going to work, spending time with loved ones, and amid it all, Americans' mental wellbeing.
Over half of American adults say their mental health suffered due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to an April survey by ValuePenguin. Of those, one-fifth said their work-related stress increased, in part due to an uncertain economy and potential job loss. Two-thirds of respondents said they felt exhausted, nearly 39% of respondents said they felt lonely and isolated, and 58% reported heightened feelings of anxiety.
As the pandemic and its aftermath continue to add pressure and unpredictability to individuals' work-life balance, now is a good time for employers to be actively championing their employees' wellbeing.
Many employers in the insurance world are embracing their role in facilitating a positive environment for their workers, including Selective Insurance, which amid the pandemic was Great Place to Work-Certified™ by the global organization Great Place to Work®.
In a survey of employees assessing perspectives on leadership, organizational culture and trust from April 20 to May 4, 91% of respondents validated Selective as a great place to work, citing “the people they work with, the unique family-oriented culture, strong values and relationships and the approachability of our executives," says Chalina Acosta, vice president of human resources operations at Selective. “Employees also mentioned their appreciation for the frequent and transparent communication from leadership and flexibility to balance their work and personal schedules, especially in the current environment."
Employers have an opportunity—and vested interest—to proactively take positive workplace culture a step forward by guiding employees toward mental wellbeing.
“If somebody is experiencing a high level of distress and anxiety right now, which they probably are, if they don't get the help they need, then that's going to progress," says Dan Clark, CEO of IBH Population Health Solutions, which provides over 10 million people across the U.S. access to behavioral health and crisis support services. “Anything you can do to help people now with resources and getting the support that they need will not only help them potentially avoid future medical costs, but also have a huge impact on workplace productivity and presenteeism."
There is no shortcut to creating a workplace culture that promotes employee mindfulness. “You can't take a one-size-fits-all approach to mental health," says John Novak, head of human resources for the Americas at Swiss Re. “Each employee is unique and has different needs; therefore it's important to have a robust mental health program and a variety of mental health resources so employees have access to the support that's right for them."
Here are six ways employers can help their employees maintain good mental health:
1) Focus on the Person
“Insurance is a relationship-based business and we need to make sure we're building and maintaining those relationships," Acosta says. “Make sure you focus on the whole person—not just their productivity. Ask questions. Understand what's happening in employees' lives and what they need."
Empathy is key to helping employees redirect toward mindfulness. “We teach managers to recognize symptoms of stress in their employees," Clark says. “Putting myself in my therapist shoes, which is what I used to be, you can help people going through stress by being empathetic. If you don't make an intentional effort to recognize the signs and help people understand there is help [available], the stress and distress will only increase."
“Being present for one another both personally and professionally has certainly helped," Novak says. “We use the concept of 'Leadership from Every Seat,' which means we all have a proactive role to play in delivering solutions and solving problems. The need for leadership with empathy is greater now than at any time in our recent memories."
2) Encourage Healthy Workplace Habits
The sudden transition to remote work during the coronavirus pandemic sent many companies and employees into reaction mode, creating new work routines that involve a patchwork of makeshift solutions. With many companies announcing the continuation of remote work, employers must encourage their employees to intentionally set routines that encourage wellness through telecommuting challenges.
“We talk with our employees about how to build resilience," Clark says. “We encourage them to take breaks and keep routines."
“Prior to the pandemic, it was easy to see those lines between work and personal life, but now they're much more blended," says Sterling Price, research analyst at ValuePenguin. “I've been sure to take 30 minutes during the day and eat lunch away from my desk and phone. It's important to make that line clear."
Price notes that the ValuePenguin survey uncovered a surprise: over 1 in 3 respondents reported feeling exhausted by the stay-at- home orders. It may be easy for employers to underestimate the toll of childcare, health worries and other factors clashing with work responsibilities on employees working from home, which means setting boundaries on plugged-in and on-call times can preserve a necessary margin.
Selective was proactive with their employees about encouraging those expectations. “The consistent message to employees has focused on maintaining work-life balance through flexible schedules and taking time off to recharge," Acosta says.
3) Build Community
Keeping individuals plugged in to their community at work requires a more purposeful strategy when employees can no longer be in the same physical space.
“Online tools like Zoom or Skype for Business can allow employees to feel that sense of togetherness that they would normally have on a personal, face-to-face basis," Price says. The ValuePenguin team has lunch together over Zoom on Mondays. “It's really easy to talk with coworkers, because we can share what we did over the weekend as a natural conversation starter," he says.
While it may be tempting to think more virtual happy hours, coffee sessions and lunch get-togethers equal greater employee connectivity, “as this crisis has evolved, we've seen you can actually overwhelm people by providing too many tools, too much information and too many virtual events," Novak says. “We need to be strategic and balanced, and also give people space."
4) Provide Guidance on Available Options
“While it is too soon to tell whether or not the current crisis will have a permanent effect on how we access mental health information, what we can say is the 'traditional' methods that involve leaving your home and being physically present to gain knowledge have been immediately replaced with dozens, if not hundreds, of virtual solutions," Novak says. “The challenge many employers have is promoting solutions that make sense and are not just flashes in the pan or poorly tested."
Often, employees need the most help to make sense of the myriad options. More than 1 in 5 individuals want to receive virtual therapy but have not due to uncertainty about whether the resource would be covered by their insurance, according to the ValuePenguin study.
“Many people haven't even thought about mental health until they've had this time now to look inward without that external feedback from being surrounded by people," Price says. “At the crux of it is a lack of pre-emptive education and understanding. Many individuals may now be suffering from their first type of mental health issue and figuring out where to go from there can be challenging."
Companies like Swiss Re and Selective have organized resources for their employees to easily find wellbeing and mental health resources, programs and guides that fit their unique situations.
5) Destigmatize the Conversation
For some, sorting through a host of confusing options may be their biggest obstacle in pursuing mindfulness—but for others, the challenge may be more internalized.
“When you say 'mental health' that can have negative connotations for some people," Clark says. “There's a misperception that something is wrong with you if you access these services. We really emphasize that mental health check-ins are a healthy thing."
The wide variety of remote mental health tools can provide access to individuals who may be more comfortable engaging virtually rather than walking into a community health center.
“There are so many great things available for a variety of needs," Clark says. “It's important to make a committed effort to looking at mental health. It sometimes gets lost, but as people become more aware of mental health with social distancing, it's being more often recognized as important."
Communicating consistently and openly with your team about mindfulness can begin to break down initial reservations. “In May, which was Mental Health Awareness Month, Selective launched a two-week mental health challenge centered around healthy habits and mindfulness," Acosta says. “We support mental health throughout the year through resources and online learning programs that focus on perseverance, resilience and mindfulness."
6) Strengthen Your Resources for the Long-term
The coronavirus pandemic may have brought mindfulness to the forefront of conversations about workplace quality, but employers should use the opportunity to encourage mental wellbeing through the aftermath of the pandemic and beyond.
“I would encourage independent agencies to invest in learning more about solutions, such as digital-based mental health resources and telemedicine, which many people are still unaware of," Clark says. “You may be surprised by the vast array of services. Even a very small employer can make a very meaningful difference."
“From a cost perspective, mental health may sometimes go to the bottom of the stack when a company is negotiating their insurance policy for the next year," he adds. “It may only be a small part of the plan you're negotiating, but it has an enormous impact."
AnneMarie McPherson is IA news editor.