In early July, many employers were feeling optimistic about back-to-office plans that would bring a return to some form of hybrid or in-person work shortly after Labor Day. Just a few weeks later, many of those carefully calibrated plans are being thrown out the window as the delta variant of the coronavirus has brought all-too-familiar headlines about rising caseloads and renewed calls for masking.
This isn’t where we thought we’d be in August 2021.
It’s important to recognize that the gap between our expectations of how much the pandemic would have eased by now and the reality of rising caseloads is putting added stress on an American workforce already on the brink of burnout, as evidenced by federal statistics showing that employees are leaving their jobs at record rates.
The new surge driven by the delta variant has introduced new stressors across all areas of workers’ lives:
Personal – Individuals are once again worrying about their own health, and whether they may be at risk of transmitting the virus to others.
Professional – Uncertainty around return-to-work plans adds to anxiety. Employees who wish to continue to work from home may be wondering if their careers will suffer as a result.
Parenting & Caregiving – These employees are already exhausted from the past year and a half of inconsistent schooling. Many had hoped for a “normal” school year starting this fall, but rising caseloads have made this a stressful start for many parents of school-age children.
To adequately support all employees as we move into this new phase of the pandemic, your company must build a culture that employees will recognize is supportive of individuals across all areas of their lives at work and home. This has been a prolonged period of shifted routines, and many people have settled into new lifestyles. It will be difficult to change again, and employers must think about flexibility and open dialogue.
In my 20 years working in the human resources and benefits industry, I’ve helped businesses build inclusive, supportive and productive corporate cultures. By considering these actionable steps to take before Labor Day, you too, can build that kind of culture:
Focus on high-stress employee (HSE) groups.
It’s important to take extra time to identify and understand these employee groups. What are their unique challenges? Parents and caregivers are the biggest HSE group and one that has now been under high levels of stress for more than 18 months. Caregivers often suffer in silence; They are two to three times more likely to experience a mental health event or physical condition due to stress. Now is the time to tap into employee resource groups (ERGs) and working-parent networks within your company. Find ways to consistently listen to these individuals with a focus on identifying recent gaps in support.
Keep an open mind to how stressors outside of the workplace are affecting them. Learning regression in children resulting from the previous remote school year, record levels of isolation and mental health problems among adolescents and problematic behaviors in the home stemming from the erosion of school-based supports over the past year are all affecting your employees’ mental health.
You can help by offering products that are accessible and provide real information to employees. A great example of a company that has done just that is Costco. Over the last year, Whil, A Rethink Division, has worked with Costco to create a “playbook for parents” with tip sheets and activities that create structure at home. It’s critical for all children to have a dedicated academic area, play area and quiet area to create order at home while virtual schooling, and a flow chart that takes them through these activities during the day. How can your company support parents as we enter a new phase of returning to school while still living with the virus? Listen for specific supports your workers are missing.
Remember that helping your HSE groups opens opportunities for progress on diversity and inclusion.
Listening to your HSEs is key to building a culture that is inclusive for all workers. Be vigilant of how specific employee groups are being affected. Parents of children with developmental disabilities, for example, have faced added stress during the pandemic—but they were already burdened by the stigma around disclosing the needs and/or diagnoses of their neurodiverse children. The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on people of color, and these employees may be under greater stress as a result.
Employees may also struggle with disclosing their own cognitive or mental health challenges. Whil, A Rethink Division, works with multiple companies who are doing a great job destigmatizing mental health issues. Amazon is deeply committed to this, as is Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which has a full behavioral health council with a goal of releasing campaigns to make it okay to not be okay.
One important strategy is to focus on stressors rather than diagnoses. It’s easy to talk to employees about what is seasonally relevant. Your employees will be more likely to talk about the stressors of the back-to-school season rather than clicking on a button that says, “I’m depressed.” However, helping them with sleep, yoga, meditation, family and life helps makes mental health care a daily consideration by addressing the root causes of stress.
Look beyond the health plan to proactively support mental health.
The traditional system of delivering mental health support through the health plan is broken. Costs are increasing and providers are overburdened. Behavioral health claims are up dramatically, according to multiple studies, including this one from Cigna. There are too few mental health and behavioral health providers and too many claims. Now is the time to shift the focus from relying solely on an EAP. Employers should look at supplementing benefits with sustainable digital programs that help build resiliency. Because employees need flexibility now more than ever, technology-based systems that offer support to anyone, anywhere, at any time are the way to go.
Support for employees’ daily lives is the future of work. Through Zoom, we’ve been working in each other’s living rooms, hearing the barking dogs, seeing the kids walk by. It’s important that we not forget these images that remind us of the need to support workers holistically.
People are still struggling. It might not be clinical depression, but there’s a real cost to doing nothing about their discomfort. You will see behavioral claims go up, and costs associated with that will follow.
The goal should be to get your arms around those employees and help them with their immediate needs. Then if they need further mental health assistance, they’ll know where to go and they will appreciate that they work for a company willing to support them. That builds loyalty. You can start by focusing on these three areas.
Mike Civello is the Chief Business Development Officer of Whil, A Rethink Division. He works with companies throughout the nation and worldwide including 30 of the Fortune 100 to better serve the wellbeing needs of all employees.
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