Employees are returning to work, sending their kids back to school, and resuming “normal life” after years of pandemic challenges. But one thing that’s not snapping back to normal: good mental health.
Nearly 76% of employees say they are still struggling with at least one symptom related to a mental health condition like anxiety, depression or PTSD, up 17% from 2020 rates, according to a report by the U.S. Surgeon General. A September survey by Gallup found that employees who rate their mental health as “fair” or “poor,” miss four times as many days of work than those with better mental health.
“Everybody has been in survival mode — when COVID started, it was this feeling of, OK, this is going to be a thing for a little bit, and then it’ll be over,” says Dr. LaToya Smith, a licensed mental health counselor and professor at Palo Alto University. “But we’re still not completely out of it. We’re in a space of collective grief and we can’t go back to life before COVID. We’ve been cracked open.”
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Yet for many employees, the isolation of remote work has provided an effective cover-up for their mental health. It may be much harder to spot warning signs that would signal a change in a person’s mental well-being if managers aren’t interacting in-person, Smith says.
“Isolation and lack of connection to coworkers can really impact employees,” she says. “I know it’s hard to know how to do it, but reaching out to employees and having that human-to-human moment of saying, ‘Hey, it seems like something is going on, I wanted to check in.’ That gives them permission to say, ‘You know, I am struggling.'”
Managers and even other employees can be cognizant of behaviors like drastically increased work hours, which could signal a blurring of boundaries and a lack of work-life balance. Other signs like taking unexplained absences from work may be a sign that something is wrong.
“Some people may work more when they’re working from home because boundaries are blurred and then there’s not as much separation between work and home,” Smith says. “If you notice someone is working an 80-hour week, check in with them and give them permission to know they don’t have to do that.”
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Beyond these verbal check-ins, employers can direct workers to their benefit offerings, and make sure they’re aware of what’s available and how they work. Despite widespread adoption of mental health resources, Gallup’s survey found that still, just 43% of employees are aware that such help is available to them.
“At the bare minimum, employers should have an EAP in place so that people can get free or low cost mental health services, and they need to remind employees these benefits exist,” Smith says. “A really big one that doesn’t cost anything is to model self care and boundaries in the workplace. If someone takes a day off for a mental health day, support your employee in doing that.”
This attitude can start from the top and help employees feel comfortable expressing their feelings and needs. It also sets the tone that it’s OK to ask for help and that employees aren’t alone in their emotional challenges.
“It’s important that employers remember that yes, this person has a job, but we’re humans first,” Smith says. “It’s so important to have rest and play in our lives too, not just work.”
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