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One Year Later, the Pandemic's Grim Toll on Employee Mental Health Is Clear

March 12, 2021 Leadership
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By Sarah Fister Gale

It has been one year since COVID-19 took control of our lives. One year since schools were closed, hospital emergency rooms filled to capacity, and employers sent their people packing en masse to work from kitchen counters and folding tables while their kids attended online school.

The impact of these events on our mental health has been profound.

A December 2020 wellbeing survey from meQuilibrium found burnout was up 52%, job stress was up 15%, and motivation was down 30%. What’s worse, these numbers were measured against a similar study conducted in June. The first survey showed precipitous declines in mental health, said Dr. Andrew Shatte, chief knowledge officer at meQuilibrium, a Boston-based resilience and stress management training company, to such a point that the hope was they had bottomed out.

But the numbers kept falling. Shatte has spent his career studying mental health and resiliency, and he’s never seen such declines. “Every so often there are events, like 9/11 or the Great Recession, that have an impact on mental health,” he said. “But I couldn’t have come up with a series of events that could rob us of our resiliency the way 2020 did. It was a perfect storm of disasters.”

Colleagues and Managers Alike in Crisis

The combination of health risks, economic uncertainty, isolation, despair, and exhaustion has pushed employees and their leaders to the limits.

In the past, a team might have one person dealing with a crisis. “But now we are all in crisis,” said Jennifer Dennard, cofounder of Range Labs, a distributed team software company, based in San Francisco. “It is taking all of our collective bandwidth to address.”

Yet most mid-level managers don’t have the training, resources or guidance to help their people through mental health crises – especially if they are facing one of their own. “There hasn’t been a lot of education offered on how to recognize symptoms of mental health issues, or what to do in response,” Dennard says.

Even companies that prioritized their people from the beginning, buying home office equipment for employees and hosting virtual lunches and happy hours to keep everyone engaged, saw anxiety and depression find their way in.

Related Article: Get Reworked Podcast: Why Emotion is a Critical Leadership Data Point

Acknowledge and Address Employee Grief

Construct Education was one of those companies. When the global online learning firm closed local offices, the leadership team immediately established a protocol for engagement, hosting daily virtual stand-up meetings to discuss the day’s work, and lunch calls that were intentionally not work-related. “We are a big company but everyone felt supported,” said Meg Knight, global director of strategic initiatives and human performance.

They thought they were doing everything right, but a pulse survey in March showed a lot of employees were struggling with grief and anxiety. That triggered Jessy Polzer, the company’s head of partner success, to publish an open letter to employees entitled “Grief Acknowledged.”

In it, Polzer writes frankly of seeing employees’ “desperate weariness” flash across her screen, and of watching them bury loved ones, and work through the night so their kids can use the computer for school, only to try to turn their grief and exhaustion into empathy for the clients they serve.

It’s a profoundly powerful letter that could have been written by almost any corporate leader watching their people flounder through this crisis and lacking the tools to rescue them. “Jessy took initiative to talk about how people are feeling,” Knight said. Employees appreciated the acknowledgement, and the willingness of leaders to speak openly about mental health, and to implement programs to help them address these issues.

Related Article: Dealing With the Mental Health Pandemic at Work

Make Mental Health a Leadership Priority

These frank conversations about employee mental health may be the one silver lining to come out of the pandemic, said Mary Slaughter, managing director of people advisory services for EY. “COVID has amplified the differences in what people need to stay healthy,” she said.

That is shifting the conversations HR, leaders and employees are having about the importance of mental health in the workplace. Before the pandemic mental health was rarely a top priority in benefits discussions. But now Slaughter is having daily conversations with peers and clients about how to create psychological safety in the workplace, and what benefits companies can provide to support employees’ mental, physical and emotional health.

“Leaders are being forced to think about the emotional state of their employees in a way they haven’t before,” she said.

Employees are already noticing the change. In a recent workplace survey, 28% of employees said their employers have improved access to mental health services since the pandemic began, and 28% say employers are making efforts to create a culture that fosters mental health. Many of these changes are being driven by HR.

“It is HR’s role to set the conditions for mental health support, and to equip managers and employees with the tools to respond,” Dennard said. However, the decision to invest in mental health services and to talk openly about the importance of mental health in the workplace has to come from the top.

“Mental health is everyone’s job, but leaders set the tone,” she said.

And as more Gen Z employees join the workforce, the demand for more services, conversations and transparency around mental health will only increase. Gen Zers grew up talking openly about their mental health with peers and parents in a way prior generations never did. And they will bring those expectations to the workplace.

If leaders don’t adapt, they could be facing significant blow-back from this generation, said Shatte. He notes that Glassdoor is already erupting with ratings tied to how management is supporting employees during the pandemic. “You don’t want to be on the wrong side of this trend,” he said. “It is a permanent change, and we can never go back.”

Nor should leaders want to. Mental health has been directly linked to productivity, burnout, absenteeism and health claim costs, he said. If companies want an engaged and productive workforce through the pandemic and beyond, they need to pay attention to this trend.

“Investing in employees’ mental health isn’t just the right thing to do," Shatte said. "It’s good for business.”

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