We’re experiencing unprecedented times and the past five months have tested our resilience in several ways! As the race for the vaccine rages globally and businesses look for ways to open up, we know that there is a new normal that we will have to become used to for a long time to come. Social distancing and confinement measures, work from home, remote team management are here to stay and businesses have to weave these in in the way they operate going forward.
At the heart of this uncertainty and significant paradigm shift are the people, across levels! The demands put on leadership and employees to manage their professional and personal lives have been immense. A lot has been written about these issues but where we are now after 5 months just goes to show that human beings have an amazing ability to adapt. In the frontlines of managing this agenda have been the Human Resources professionals. The pressure placed on them has increased significantly too.
The reality is that employees across levels will depend on HR for support in ways that are beyond the obvious and this will include being the first responder for maintaining good mental and emotional health of the employees. It is, therefore, imperative that HR by itself and in tandem with business leaders, plays a significant role in supporting employees during these challenging times & beyond.
So How can HR help?
Consistent, transparent and regular communication on the essentials : HR policies, systems, processes so that employees don’t feel disconnected. This is the nuts & bolts stuff that can lead to unnecessary anxiety & stress. Transparency is key.
Look out for opportunities to build a sense of community. Since employees are working thru remote channels and are by themselves, the ‘water cooler’ opportunities, walking across to a colleague or supervisor to chat or ask a question etc. are missing. The feeling of loneliness can lead to anxiety as well. Creating targeted team building opportunities through team calls, briefings, fun activities, team lunch or coffee where people talk about non work topics will keep the team spirit alive.
Encouraging team members to let off steam by pursuing something they are passionate about can be extremely effective in managing stress.
This is all good & required but the new normal of working anytime, anywhere with no obvious spatial, mental & time boundaries means increased workload & being ‘on’ all the time. Employees are feeling weighed down because the workload seems to be increasing both from a personal & professional level. All this combined with concerns about the health of family members, are leading to a lot of strain, emotion and anxiety, that could severely impact the mental health & well being of employees in the short to long term.
It will be prudent for HR to gauge what emotional and mental health issues are prevalent in the organization so that appropriate action steps could be taken before the problem becomes intense.
HR needs to coach managers and business leaders to be considerate, empathetic and supportive of the unique issues of the employees. Instituting regular catch ups where employees don’t hesitate to open up to HR for support, even for personal issues will help. Its also important for HR to build trust & openness with employees so that barriers are broken. This takes time, effort and a willingness to make that investment. HR needs to be the sounding board that employees go to for advice and comfort.
Providing employee assistance programmes, counselling services and group therapy opportunities is a very important toolset to help manage the mental health issues in the organization. It’s the availability of these resources that make employees believe that the organization has their best interest at heart. If these services are available and there is a campaign around emotional health in the organization, there will be better awareness & employees will have an outlet where a professionally qualified person will address the issues.
Being open and transparent about the support available for employees experiencing emotional health challenges, offers a tremendous way of building a culture that encourages the value of supporting good emotional health of employees.
In conclusion... while the COVID-19 pandemic is raging we cannot lose sight of a much larger & hidden pandemic – that of our emotional & mental health. Health is not limited to just our physical well being, our emotional and mental health is of a great priority too so that we can handle what this or any future crisis brings. All organizations need to focus on the mental health of their employees to prevent loss of productivity. This needs focus at all levels - from the board to the leadership and HR needs to lead the change.