Photo by Akshay Paatil for Unsplash

As September is National Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month, we at Hito,LLC thought that now would be a great time to talk about the effects of the mental health crisis Americans are currently facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We would also like to share some tips for business leaders to help them best support employee mental health during this time and create a happier, healthier working environment. 

Facing a Mental Health Crisis in America

We are currently living through one of the hardest times in history. And I’m sure that was the eighteenth time you’ve read that sentence in an article today, but it’s true. The COVID-19 has led to mass misery and uncertainty beyond anything that I’ve seen in my lifetime, beyond anything that most have ever witnessed. As a result, employee mental health is declining as human beings, adaptable as they are, are not equipped to handle this level of constant uncertainty.

The biggest mental health hurdle for many people is not necessarily the fast-growing number of problems that are affecting our lives right now, it’s the fact that none of the solutions to those problems are anywhere within our control. Most of us are just doing our best to wait it out as scientists and governments scramble for solutions, and that’s all that we can do. At this point, for most, that doesn’t feel like much. We’re stuck. Stuck living what feels like the same day in the same room over and over with no end in sight. The toll that takes is incredible. 

That all said, it’s more important than ever for leaders to look out for their employees at this time. If you’re a business owner, you might only see that your employees are showing up smiling for Zoom meetings everyday, but that’s likely not the whole story. A May article in Harvard Business Review states, “75% of people say they feel more socially isolated, 67% of people report higher stress, 57% are feeling greater anxiety, and 53% say they feel more emotionally exhausted.”

It’s more likely than not that your same smiling employees are facing what they would consider to be monumental stress. As a business owner, you may be asking yourself, “But if my employees are struggling that much, why wouldn’t they tell me? I’ve made myself available to them.” It might just be that they still feel like they can’t, or that admitting weakness to you is not worth the risk.

 A recent Huffington Post article suggests that one of the top reported fears employees have today is job loss. This seems inevitable with unemployment numbers in American at around 30 million people. Your employee might have a recently unemployed spouse at home and children to support. Talking about employee mental health in the workplace has long been stigmatized, and if they feel that there’s any risk in losing their job in coming to talk to you about the extent of their struggle, they might just opt to bottle it up and develop an unhealthy resentment for their work. This could negatively affect your business too, as time and again it has been shown that happy employees who feel taken care of by their work are the most productive employees. So what can you, as a leader, do to help support your employees in the workplace? 

1. Be Vulnerable 

If you’re a good leader, your employees look up to you. That’s fantastic! Many business leaders, however, also feel that to maintain their employees’ respect, they should seem healthy and productive at all times, never showing strain. Years of studies have proven that false. A 2019 workplace study actually showed that 62% of employees actually wanted their employers to be more open with them about their own mental health challenges and burdens. Employees want to see how their employers are human, and your vulnerability can be a powerful tool in helping to open the door to mental health conversions. 

Like everything of value, building a mentally stable work environment is a give and take. The more that you can share with your employees, the safer they will feel sharing about themselves with you. This not only makes everyone feel better, and therefore makes everyone more productive, but it helps to build team loyalty. If your employees can see your humanity and feel that you see and respect their humanity, they are more likely to work harder and more diligently than ever, because if they feel that you genuinely care about their well-being, then they will care about yours, and your employees know that a large chunk of your well-being depends on whether or not your business does well. A happy and supported employee will do everything they can to make that happen, just as you would go out of your way to help a friend! 

2. Be Communicative 

As many offices have gone remote, now more than ever, you should prioritize check-ins with your employees. People feel isolated. Small things that you can do can help to combat that isolation. For example, making a point to ask your employees how they are frequently and making them feel safe to answer honestly, instead of just with a faked “I’m good.”  Make the effort to really listen to their response and give them the space to confide. This can go a long way in helping your employees to feel safe in the workplace. 

If your employee does decide to confide in you that they aren’t doing well for any particular reason, make a point of talking it through with them. Open yourself up to allow them to be vulnerable with you. Ask them if there is anything that you can do to help. Point them in the direction of your available mental health resources that could benefit them. Communication is key in this situation, so work this into your routine, make an effort to promote office openness and awareness. Your employees will thank you. 

3. Be Understanding

When it comes to sustaining employee mental health, your employees need to know that you have their backs. This includes being flexible and understanding as their situations change. For example, working parents have found themselves in the difficult situation of having to juggle full-time childcare, homeschooling, and their careers. With all of these things happening under the same roof all of the time, people are feeling burnt out.

On one hand, many are looking on the bright side and say that they feel blessed to have this extra time with their families, but on the other hand, it’s becoming harder to achieve a work life balance with so much enmeshed and many employees report feeling burnt-out and depleted. Make sure that you ask about these outside factors when you communicate, and ask what you can do to ease the stress. 

Maybe that means offering to divide the workload differently or allowing your employees to make their own work hours. Here at Hito, we’ve allowed remote employees more control over when they work, so long that they can respond to messages in designated hours of the day.

That said, it’s definitely important to allow your employees the space to build a work-life balance. When everyone is working from home, the line between the office and the bed can get awfully blurry. Allow your employees to set their own boundaries, ie “I’m going to work from 9-5 still, and won’t be working outside of those hours.” A recent article in The Washington Post discusses a study that found that working from home actually means longer days for most people. It shows that following the shift to remote work, the average workday is now 48.5 minutes longer. This ties in with the fear, discussed earlier, that many have about losing their jobs. 

People want their bosses to see that they can respond to every email within five minutes, that they will drop everything to do a task in the middle of the night, even if that means sacrificing time needed to care for themselves and their loved ones. They fear that dropping the ball could mean job loss and know that in this market, replacing their job could take months and a safety net that they don’t have. That said, the risk for burn-out here is high, and employee burnout means a significant drop in productivity. It’s important to have conversations with employees about how much they actually feel that they’re on the clock, not just the hours that they’re logging. Work with them and encourage workplace boundaries. 

The Bottom Line

 The world as we know it seems to be recalibrating. That’s stressful, but it’s also an unprecedented opportunity to build something better. As our workplaces are forced to evolve, now is the perfect time to build healthier, more sustainable work environments, focus on employee mental health, and strive to take better care of each other. From our team to yours, we wish you well, stay safe out there!