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Prioritizing a psychologically healthy workforce in the time of COVID-19

There has been a lot of talk about the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Across the country, businesses are struggling to survive or completely shutting down, and experts regularly analyze that impact in dollars and cents, in unemployment figures and the state of the GDP. 

But what happens when you look beyond the bottom line, to the impact the pandemic is having on the mental health of the American workforce? 

Over the past four months, Julie Isaacs’ work has focused on exactly that. She is a psychotherapist and the interim regional director for behavioral health at Kaiser Permanente. As she and her team talk with workers in all types of organizations, fear seems to be the unifying emotional experience. There’s the fear of losing jobs, fear of being exposed to Covid-19, fear that a lack of access to vital services like childcare will impact the ability to work. 

“People feel like they’re pulled in a lot of directions right now, and they’re not feeling like they’re in control of their environment,” Isaacs said.

Research shows that sentiment is widespread. In July, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 53% of Americans say that pandemic-related stress has had a negative impact on their mental health, and 60% believe the worst is yet to come. In addition, a survey from Ginger, an on-demand mental health care company, found that seven in 10 workers believe the pandemic is the most stressful time of their entire professional career. And 93% of workers believe companies will survive the effects of Covid-19 if they invest in their employees’ mental health. 

Isaacs agreed businesses have a lot to gain from a psychologically healthy workforce. 

“You get better work performance, and it actually reduces health care costs. You have lower absenteeism and higher engagement. You end up with higher morale, loyalty and creativity, as well as lower turnover rates,” Isaacs explained. “When people are smiling and laughing at work and enjoying what they’re doing, the company profits.”

So, how can companies support the mental health of their employees? 

Encourage the continuity of routine

Before the pandemic, workdays for many employees were defined by structure and routine. After Covid-19 hit, that structure disappeared as many companies transitioned to a virtual work experience. To manage that transition, Isaacs recommended encouraging employees to rebuild a routine, one that accommodates their new normal. 

“We might work with people on setting up a calendar where they get up, take a shower, brush their teeth, have breakfast, get the kids settled, and then they begin their workday. Maybe you set a timer for lunch, and then you go for a walk,” Isaacs said. “You’re building routine, and you’re putting that structure back into your life. You also need to set times to remind yourself to reach out to other people so that you feel that connection to the outside world.” 

Get your team on camera

As many teams have transitioned to video conferences for regular meetings, Isaacs has seen an increase in people turning off their cameras. They are in the meeting but hidden from view, and that is a problem, Isaacs said. 

Turning off the camera limits the opportunity for personal connection that comes with the ability to see someone’s face. It’s a sort of disengaged participation that can increase feelings of isolation. That’s why Isaacs recommended that people remain on camera for video calls with their teams. In fact, it’s a rule among her own team members. 

“Every meeting, you have to show yourself, and it’s made a world of difference in how everyone is feeling,” Isaacs said. “We’re all used to seeing people on a daily basis, so this is a way of connecting and feeling a sense that we still belong to something larger than ourselves.” 

Conduct one-on-one check-ins

In addition to team meetings, managers and leaders should also carve out time for one-on-one check-ins with individual employees, Isaacs said. 

“I have all my managers doing one-on-ones with their team. Those can be brief — 15 minutes to a half hour — and it allows you to make sure people are OK. How are they doing? Is their at-home workstation meeting their needs?” Isaacs said. “The work needs to get done, but people want to know they’re still a valuable member of the team. So we need to make sure the team feels they’re taken care of, even if they’re not on site.” 

Talk every day

In trying to strike a balance between team meetings and individual conversations, another factor to consider is the importance of checking in with your core team every day, Isaacs said. 

When the pandemic first hit, one of Isaacs’ first actions was to replace her weekly, hourlong team meetings with daily check-ins, and the impact has been significant. 

“The team is so much more cohesive now,” she said. “The meetings were supposed to be 15 minutes, but sometimes they go on for an hour because people are laughing and chatting, and our productivity has skyrocketed. We’re getting so much more done now than we did before the pandemic, and I feel like the team knows each other so much better.” 

Make it OK to take time off for mental health 

Employees will often call out sick when the issue is actually related to mental health, rather than physical illness, Isaacs explained. In her experience, creating a culture of acceptance around mental health can decrease those call outs because people will take the time they need when they need it and perhaps prevent more recurrent absenteeism in the future. 

“It’s one of those things that needs to come from the top down because, if you’re trying to get time off and it’s not getting approved, people are just going to call out anyway,” Isaacs said. “And the longer somebody puts off treatment, the longer they might need to be in treatment. Ultimately, your business is impacted as a result.” 

Incorporate incentive programs 

These days, technology has made mental health services more accessible than ever before. Isaacs recommends embracing those programs as part of an overarching employee wellness strategy. 

For instance, companies can offer employees free access to meditation applications, such as Calm and myStrength, and encourage employees to download them. They can create a meditation room in the office or institute something like “mindful moment Mondays,” where employees pause at a set time every Monday to breathe and relax. 

“A lot of these things don’t cost a lot of money for organizations to do,” Isaacs said. “Right now, the big stressor is Covid-19. It could be something else in the future, so I think we have to be mindful in thinking about how we can give people choices, making sure we set up time to speak with them about their concerns and figuring out what could make people feel more at ease.” 

To learn how you can improve the mental health of your workplace, visit Kaiser Permanente’s Covid-19 Mental Health & Wellness webinar series.

Originally published on The Washington Business Journal.