When did you REALLY last check in with your team?
This time last year, all eyes and ears in HR were focused on employee mental health. We were in the midst of a difficult pandemic with no clear end in sight. Employees in all industries were thrust into work-from-home (“WFH”) scenarios with little advance warning, and into setups that simply were not conducive to a functioning home office environment. Worse still, school closures and virtual schooling meant most working parents were left doing double duty, suddenly forced to teach grade school curriculum as well as maintaining their standard job duties.
Employers were broadly understanding and sympathetic. While government subsidies helped businesses to keep paying rent on the physical premises that were now suddenly vacant, employers made great strides in accommodating employees. Allowances were made for flexible hours to allow for midday parenting and household necessities without any penalties for interrupted workflow. Managers would smile politely if a toddler or pet wandered into a videoconference, understanding full well that their employee was likely pulling double or triple duty. Most importantly, employers recognized that their employees’ mental health was perilous due to the multiple stressors they now faced, and employers had no hesitation checking in and offering to help.
Fast forward one year later.
While an end may now be in sight, the pandemic is still not over. Working parents have dealt with another year of on and off school closures, with working while teaching now becoming the new normal. Employees everywhere are suffering from ‘Zoom fatigue,’ physically exhausted from having to appear bright and chipper on video conferences day after day to maintain the appearance of good health. They have been burdened by the stress of worrying about variants, procuring vaccines, caring for relatives, and attempting to slowly navigate what a post pandemic world might look like.
So when was the last time that you really checked in with your employees, and asked about how they are coping with the pandemic after 15 grueling months?
It’s in your best interests to do so. Companies that have a more engaged workforce are likely to be 78% more profitable, 40% more productive, and even have a higher valuation than their competitors who are not making those same efforts. It is unquestionably more challenging to keep a workforce engaged when you are all physically separated and undergoing significant stress, but that is all the more reason to try.
Despite the pandemic, maintaining employees’ overall health and wellbeing is still an employer’s responsibility. While external stressors such as the now-known ‘pandemic fatigue’ may be outside of managerial control, employers and managers are still responsible for how it impacts their employees’ health.
Under the law, employers have a ‘duty to inquire’ if they suspect that a mental health issue may be impacting performance. Taking automatic disciplinary action without stopping to question the situation first and if it may be related to disability (including mental health and addiction, all fall under protected human rights grounds) may have serious consequences. If an employer terminates a poorly performing employee who was later found to be suffering from a mental health issue, that employer could be on the hook for significant human rights damages depending on the circumstances.
But the conversation about mental health doesn’t need to be all doom and gloom. There are solutions available that can promote a positive and healthy work environment, and can address small issues before they become chronic problems in your workplace.
First: Open your eyes
Recognize the signs of burnout in your employees, and learn to catch the warning signs before burnout becomes chronic and habitual. Encourage your employees setting boundaries, especially in precarious WFH setups that offer little physical separation between a makeshift home office and a larger home life. Remember, not every employee will have the physical space to work in a separate room from where they cook/eat/relax/sleep.
Make sure that your expectations of working hours are clear, and encourage employees to walk away and recharge during those non-working hours. If you do start to notice unhealthy habits or patterns in your employees’ work hours or work spaces, make sure that you speak with them to figure out a solution. Addressing the problem early can help avoid serious negative impacts on mental health and productivity.
Second: Give a little bit
Remember that just because we are over a year into the pandemic, your employees’ home lives and personal needs may have changed over the last 15 months. Babies have been born and children have grown up who now have different care needs than they did last March, as have relatives who may be ill, or other personal circumstances that have arisen. While you can largely expect your employees to stay working during working hours, remember that employees are simultaneously juggling complex home needs throughout their work day. A bit of compassion and creative flexibility will likely encourage them to remain productive, and avoid employees burning out from unrealistic expectations.
Have honest conversations with your employees, not just a cursory ‘are you okay,’ but ask them what you can do to improve their mental health. Take a look at your employee benefits package, and consider revising to make sure that it incorporates their suggestions. Increased days off or flex time, sponsored gym memberships, and benefits for counselling can all be helpful. Even a low-cost solution such as sponsored memberships to mental health apps such as Calm or Headspace can be helpful.
Third: Promote good mental health
Make no mistake, this goes a step beyond simply opening up the dialogue. While you may not be a mental health professional, there are plenty of low-cost or no-cost resources available where you can direct all employees, so that they have the right tools when in need. Check in with employees regularly, and be genuine when you do. Ask them if they need more support to manage or balance their workload; the question alone may offer them a sense of relief knowing that they are supported.
Take a hard look at your company culture. Are your values being respected, or do they need to be revamped to meet new accommodations? Do you promote and value the connections formed between coworkers? Is it a culture where expectations are made clear, and resources are promoted if anyone begins to feel burnout? If strained mental health is a common problem then a cultural shift may be in order. Remember that good mental health should be seen as a priority alongside any other in the business, and not just a waste of time or pleasant afterthought. Participation is key.
At Castle HR we are passionate about workplace mental health because we’ve been there ourselves. We have worked in environments in the past that promoted high performance over wellness and balance, and we remember what it’s like when adequate supports are not in place. Our team of fractional HR professionals understand how much good workplace mental health can mean to a small organization, and we’re experienced in building and implementing solutions that help your team thrive. Contact us today to learn more about our services.
Looking for ways to promote your team’s wellness? We can help.