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Working well and the mental health impact of COVID-19

For companies returning to ‘normal’ operations, helping bereaved and traumatised employees readjust and manage their mental health becomes the next great challenge presented by the pandemic.

An empty seat may be the most confronting issue that employees face when offices and workplaces begin to reopen.

That chair may have belonged to a colleague who lost their life because of COVID-19. It may remind them of the empty space in their own lives following the death of a family member or friend.

It could be a lingering reminder of the need for social distancing, one of the most visible requirements in addressing the ongoing global pandemic, or simply a symbol that the pandemic remains a factor in their daily lives, creating tension and uncertainty.

The loss of colleagues and family members, the separation of close-knit teams, a sense of unrelenting concern — COVID-19 has not just devastated the health of many countries but has left workforces in which people are bereaved, traumatised, stressed and fearful.

New waves. More contagious variants. False dawns as lockdowns ease then are reinstated. Vaccine supply and efficacy doubts. Jobs lost and businesses shuttered.

In countries including the US, Spain, Italy and Poland, it is estimated that as many as 1 in 5 people know someone who has died due to complications from COVID-19.

In Brazil, the rate of deaths outstripped births over the past six months and the latest strain is leaving young and otherwise healthy people falling ill, a stark departure from the original strain.

India is in the grip of a devastating new wave of disease, the optimism felt in February now gone as the country battles more than 400,000 new cases daily and thousands of deaths.

In many places, vaccines are starting to be rolled out to stem the spread of the virus, but the mental health impact on staff members of the past year will not be easily forgotten.

Grief at the loss of life or health of loved ones is the most obvious concern but it is not the only one. Many people are struggling with a loss of freedom and human touch, the sadness that comes with missing moments that cannot be recreated — a graduation, a birth, a wedding, a family moment, a funeral.

How can employers support the mental wellbeing of their staff and increase the likelihood of a return to full health for some of the company’s most important assets?

The importance of staying connected

Kari Viglasky, who co-chairs Baker Tilly Canada’s National Human Resources Committee, says many Canadians are finding life difficult.

March gave hope to the people of Canada that the worst had passed, as the rolling seven-day average of COVID-19 infections dropped to about 2900 daily cases, a good result compared to the 8000 daily cases in the first days of the new year.

“The most important action employers can take to safeguard the wellbeing of their staff is to start a conversation to enquire how they are doing, do they need anything, and most importantly encourage them to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”
– Kari Viglasky

But by the middle of April, daily cases were back above 8500 and stay-at-home orders were back in force.

“In Canada, some areas are in a very bad situation. They have basically locked us down on a stay-at-home order, we’re in our third wave, and our vaccination rollout has been slow compared to the US and other advanced countries,” she says.

“The most important action employers can take to safeguard the wellbeing of their staff is to start a conversation to enquire how they are doing, do they need anything, and most importantly encourage them to get vaccinated as soon as possible. Be flexible and accommodate their work so they can get the vaccine.”

“We’re just advising business leaders to have a constant check in with their employees.”

Amid necessary attention on COVID-19 case numbers, managing serious illness and enacting measures to prevent further spread, it can be overlooked that people are experiencing burnout like never before.

A study published in Lancet showed people who contracted COVID-19 were more likely to suffer from a psychiatric disorder such as post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, as well as experience a range of conditions including anxiety, panic attacks, dementia, burnout, or insomnia.

“Furthermore, this study found that those with previous psychiatric disorders were 65 per cent more likely to get COVID-19,” Ms Viglasky says.

“Many are working at home, and they’re alone in isolation. Others are juggling working at home with a spouse or partner, teaching their kids at home, taking care of elderly parents and trying to keep the dog quiet when on a Teams call with a client.

“Others have family and relatives that are in isolation, in nursing homes, that can’t go to school. They’re struggling, everybody’s struggling.

“Check in with your people, make sure that they’re okay. You know, have that one-on-one connection, don’t let them be isolated and feel cut off.”

Managing the return to the office

Across the Atlantic, the United Kingdom’s new daily infections reached more 60,000 in January but lockdowns and an aggressive vaccine program has forced the daily average down to 2200 by the end of April.

The country is plotting its way to reopen offices in the middle of the year but getting people back in them may not be that simple, says Amanda Trewhella, a Managing Associate at UK law firm Freeths and an employment law specialist.

“Business leaders are just starting to have conversations with employees about whether they wish to come back full time or part time, how they want to set up their office or workstation,” she says.

“Some companies might find it difficult to encourage some people to come back, especially when they have been working from home pretty effectively from the last year. “
– Amanda Trewhella

“As they start raising these questions, they will have a better understanding about their people.

“Most will be quite comfortable about coming back but there are bound to be some people that are really quite scared about it. Perhaps people will be suffering from social anxiety if they have not been around people for the last year, then suddenly they’ve got to be on a train going to work and in an office, surrounded by lots of people.

“Some companies might find it difficult to encourage some people to come back, especially when they have been working from home pretty effectively from the last year. I can imagine some employees saying I want to carry on doing that, I don’t want to take the risk, COVID-19 is still with us.

“It might be quite difficult for some employers to encourage people to come in, to give them enough comfort to feel that it is safe, or safe as it can be.”

Business leaders should realise that people have a right to make an application to work flexibility and Ms Trewhella says the company has an obligation to consider it.

“It’s not an absolute right at the moment, although the government has been talking about making it a right to be able to work flexibly, but a company would have to give objective reasons as to why it wouldn’t work,” she says.

“Many of these conversations will revolve around teamwork. For some employers, it is very difficult if people aren’t all there together, or maybe if just one or two people aren’t there, and everyone else is together.

“Some employers will no doubt have legitimate concerns about team culture and negotiating around these issues is going to be challenging.”

“Employers will need to consider how they will deal with accommodation issues in their workplace.”
– Kari Viglasky

When Canadians return to work, Ms Viglasky says employers must be aware that they have a duty to accommodate people with disabilities, and that obligation goes beyond the physical.

“Accommodation covers any number of mental health illnesses, from anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar,” she says.

“Employers will need to consider how they will deal with accommodation issues in their workplace.

“It can be as big as giving them a leave of absence if they have a bout of depression or a mental health breakdown, they just need that time away from work because they’re that unwell.

“On the other hand there may be employees or clients who have staff that need to work in the office and can’t work at home because of isolation issues or the opposite of too much chaos at home.

“Employers need to be open to accommodation options and be creative and empathetic with their people.

“Checking in with them now, often, and one-on-one will keep employees connected, appreciated, recognised and feeling valued, all things that could help alleviate some of the stressors that cause mental health challenges.”

Dealing with a death in the workplace

Ms Trewhella says if a colleague has died during the pandemic, discussing their passing may be confronting but it should be out in the open.

“Have one-to-one conversations or a team conversation about that person so their colleagues can explain how they’re feeling about it.”
– Amanda Trewhella

“It’s really important to not shy away from it, and to discuss it honestly,” she says.

“Have one-to-one conversations or a team conversation about that person so their colleagues can explain how they’re feeling about it.”

Creating an environment where employees feel safe to share is important, Ms Trewhella says, as well as a manger’s ability to demonstrate how those concerns are being allayed.

“In terms of an office, if they have not been in for a whole year, show them how the office has been reconfigured so they are not going to be too close to too many people, you can still keep the social distance,” she says.

“Maybe create a video walkthrough of the office plan or seating charts.

“Some companies have done that to show people how it will look when they come in, because presumably it’s going to be very different to the last time they were there.

“Encouraging them to let them know what their concerns are so that they can do what they need to do and change anything they need to before they come in.”

Creating a more resilient organisation

Managers checking in on their teams through phone or video calls will help them stay on top of mental health issues.

“It has been reported that 50 per cent of people have been unable to maintain connections with friends during the pandemic. This is where the value of a mentor comes in.”
– Kari Viglasky

But for an employer to rebound strongly from the pandemic and give their teams the best chance of avoiding burnout, Ms Viglasky recommends establishing a work mentor program.

“Call them what you like – a mentor, a coach, a team connection, simply somebody that you connect with on a daily basis, someone that checks in with you,” she says.

“One of the root causes of burnout is a lack of community engagement and interaction. According to author Jennifer Moss, loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and it is more dangerous than obesity.

“COVID-19 has created a high-risk environment for burnout. It has been reported that 50 per cent of people have been unable to maintain connections with friends during the pandemic.

“This is where the value of a mentor comes in, a person in the workplace can check in on a person not as a co-worker, or as a boss or supervisor, but as more of a compassionate friend.

“Facilitating friendships and connections at work – even when working at home – can increase engagement, a sense of belonging, morale and overall health.”

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Meet the experts

Kari Viglasky

Baker Tilly Canada

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Amanda Trewhella

Freeths UK

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