There’s no question that “work” has changed in the past year, with heightened challenges ranging from the isolation of remote working to compliance with new workplace safety standards. At this point, we can’t know the exact toll the COVID pandemic will have, but a recent survey shows that the issue is pervasive: 73% of workers expressed anxiety and concern about returning to work.
Employers have always played a pivotal role in recognizing emotional distress, destigmatizing mental illness in the workplace, and offering programs to support good mental health. This role will become even more vital during what experts anticipate will be a tsunami of emotional upheaval as we navigate the coming months and even, perhaps, years. They advocate for enhanced surveillance, treatment options, and attention to workplace culture (https://www.bmj.com/content/369/bmj.m1994).
The consequences of depression, stress, and anxiety in the pre-COVID workplace are well documented—and are likely to be exacerbated by current circumstances. Individually or together, they’re linked to increased substance use, poor attention and concentration (leading to errors and safety concerns), reduced job performance, increased absenteeism, higher turnover, lower productivity, lower profitability, lower job growth, and increased costs for psychological and pharmacological treatments, among other things. (Johnston, et al, 2019; SAMSHA, 2018; WHO, 2013 website)
As someone responsible for workplace wellness, the burning question is this: What can you do?
Traditional advice about tending to the emotional needs of employees certainly applies. The CDC recognizes that the workplace environment as the right place to promote good mental health, thanks to standing communication structures, centralized policies, existing social networks, access to on site workplace programs, opportunities to incentivize program participation, and the opportunity to track progress and measure effects of programs. In part, they suggest the following:
- Offer free screenings for mental health.
- Provide free or subsidized lifestyle coaching, counseling or self-help programs.
- Offer health insurance with no or low costs for medication and counseling.
- Distribute materials about warning signs of emotional distress and treatment options.
- Host seminars and workshops that address depression, anxiety, and stress, focusing on mindfulness, stress reduction, etc.
- Provide manager training to identify distress in employees.
(For the full list, visit https://www.cdc.gov/workplacehealthpromotion/tools-resources/workplace-health/mental-health/index.html)