After more than a year of life with COVID-19, employees still working from home, millions of people left without a job, financial woes, racial injustice, and anxiety over the uncertainty of what the future holds, it’s no surprise that stress levels are at an all-time high. Symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorders increased three-fold in 2020, and nearly four in five members of the global workforce report that the pandemic has negatively impacted their mental health.
Unfortunately, many employers aren’t doing enough to support the overwhelming stress their workforce is experiencing. Nearly 75% of healthcare workers experience significant pandemic-related fatigue and burnout. And in a time where the lines between work and home life are already blurry, four in ten employees are struggling to find work-life balance while working from home during the pandemic. The pressure to be “always-on” and available is causing undue work-related stress on top of already unprecedented levels of anxiety.
Chronic stress elicits a physical response in the body that keeps us in “fight or flight” mode for extended periods, wreaking havoc on our bodies and minds. This long-term strain can increase one’s risk of developing severe health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, depression and anxiety. The impact of stress on workers in the U.S. is so high that health expenditures increase by 50% for employees who report high levels of stress, contributing to the $300 billion that American organizations lose each year to healthcare, absenteeism, and lost productivity—and that was before the pandemic.
As businesses struggle with keeping employees engaged and productive to meet their revenue goals during this global health and economic crisis, it’s easy to lose sight of what truly matters: the health and wellbeing of your workforce.
Even a year later, employees are still adjusting to their work-from-home routines. Many of your employees are parents (or pet parents!), facing unavoidable interruptions throughout the workday. Not only are these disruptions stressful on their own, but the implicit expectation of being fully available layers additional anxiety on your employees.
Pre-pandemic, 67% of successful employees reported that their employer-provided the flexibility necessary to balance work and home life. Your employees could benefit from some reassurance that they can take a break to stretch, fit in some physical activity, or handle a personal emergency, no matter how big or small. Take it one step further by offering mental health days or increasing PTO for your workforce. With the amount of stress we’ve all experienced over the last year, everyone could use a little extra time to unwind.
The corporate landscape has changed, and keeping your employees’ needs top of mind is critical to continued organizational success. After this year of remote work, another rapid shift to on-site work may put further strain on your workforce. It’s imperative that employers extend this same flexibility to their people beyond the pandemic.
Ask Your Employees What They Need
Encourage your employees to voice their needs and help your HR teams circumvent the guesswork about what employee benefits matter the most during and beyond the pandemic. While we know that mental health is a significant issue facing workforces today, understanding what drives stress and anxiety makes it easier for HR leaders to identify where workers are struggling and how to support employees in these areas adequately.
For example, a recent Metlife study found that 81% of employees were dealing with financial stress, 77% were worried about job insecurity, and 60% were concerned about catching COVID-19. Therefore, offering a financial wellness solution within your digital health platform and reassuring employees on return-to-workplace protocols can help your people feel comfortable as they transition into a post-COVID era of work. Remember that your workforce may be coping with different stressors, so sending out an anonymous survey via email or through your employee wellbeing platform can help you identify their top concerns.
Be Mindful of “Invisible Disabilities”
Employers must understand how the mental burden of COVID-19 is affecting your workforce, especially those who are living with an “invisible disability.” One in four Americans is living with an invisible disability. While physical limitations may not be a factor for those working from home, individuals coping with physical health issues or cognitive impairments related to conditions like type 2 diabetes, cancer, ADHD, depression, anxiety, migraines, chronic pain, and sleep disorders are dealing with the additional stress that may inhibit their ability to meet expectations at work while maintaining their wellbeing.
Creating a culture that fully addresses and combats prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination within the workplace is an important long-term goal for organizational leaders. However, some actions can be implemented today to drive change. Facilitating discussions about health-related limitations in the workplace can help eliminate stigma and ease the emotional toll on those who have an invisible disability while educating other workforce members. To accommodate these members of your workforce without singling them out, try to avoid scheduling back-to-back meetings, allow employees to turn off cameras during virtual meetings when needed, and remind employees to take breaks to allow them to refocus throughout the day.
Remember, a little appreciation and understanding go a long way. Employees who feel valued and supported produce better work. In the words of Richard Branson, “Take care of your employees. They’ll take care of your business.” By regularly recognizing a job well done and helping your populations build resilience and reduce stress, your organization can expect to see a positive effect on productivity, employee retention, work quality, and customer satisfaction.