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20 Mar 2020

Coronavirus and employee mental health: 5 checkpoints for HR managers

COVID-19 impacts employee mental health

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the coronavirus has thrown the world and its workers into disarray.

On top of overarching fears for physical health, we have new social conventions, alternative work practices, cancelled travel plans, job uncertainty … in fact, uncertainty over just about every facet of modern life.

For those with mental health issues, meeting the demands of the job on top of everything else can be extra stressful.  And while the coronavirus might be new, the need for HR to take employee psychological well-being into consideration is not.

Aside from the humane reasons to care about the mental health of our workers, mental illness is the leading cause of absenteeism and long-term work incapacity in Australia – costing over $12 billion in productivity every year.

Worker well-being is a major priority for leaders and HR professionals today and this needs to extend to psychological health – now more than ever. On top of the measures taken to create physically safe working environments amid the COVID-19 crisis, it is important to extend the duty of care to maintaining mentally safe spaces also.

Here’s where to start:

1. Connect and communicate

You may have noticed that every company you have ever given your email address is communicating their new COVID-19 policies. This is the responsible thing to do for our customers, suppliers, partners and employees. Beyond coronavirus related information, it is also important that we maintain connections with employees whether they are working remotely or self-quarantining or social distancing on site or working staggered shifts. Extended periods of time alone can lead to depression, anxiety, panic attacks and lack of motivation. Regular calls, emails, online meetings and text messaging will help avoid the negative impact isolation causes.

2. Maintain daily routines

The World Health Organization (WHO) released advice for anyone feeling stressed and anxious about the coronavirus. One of their recommendations is that people maintain their daily routines as much as possible. Even in alternative work arrangements, keeping to daily routines can help us feel more in control and better able to cope with change. Establishing new or maintaining business-as-usual routines and work hours will help employees remain productive and less stressed about uncertainties. Where appropriate and within company policy, encourage regular exercise, healthy eating and adequate sleep outside work hours also.

3. Provide access to support

Encourage employees that are struggling to reach out to trusted colleagues, leaders, family and friends. Ensure they are aware of internal or external support services and resources. Organisations like Beyond Blue and other health care professionals can help people dealing with feelings of anxiety, distress and concern regarding COVID-19 and can provide remote, Skype-based counselling if need be.

4. Encourage down-time

There is a lot of catastrophising and sharing of misinformation out there. WHO also recommends that people stressed about COVID-19 avoid the news. Furthermore, social media can be a double-edged sword – while Facebook, Instagram and Twitter can be sources of light-hearted content and connection, they also stir up a great deal of panic and anger. Remind employees that it’s OK to scroll on and to step away from the screen regularly.

5. Do the same for yourself.

Like on the aeroplane, attend to your own oxygen mask so you can attend to others.

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