‘Unplugging,’ staying connected remotely, helping with child care and being vulnerable are among the ways to fight worry, stress and burnout.

Twice since the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic, global technology giant Cisco has told its 75,000 employees to take a day off to recharge. “There are so many reasons not to take a day off,” Chief People Officer Francine Katsoudas said in a May email, as reported by Business Insider. “There are few places to go, people need us. Yet there is one reason to unplug: ourselves.”

It’s no wonder that San Jose, California-based Cisco, a leader in IT, networking and cybersecurity solutions, has received numerous “best workplace” awards. Savvy employers should demonstrate care for employees’ mental health, especially during a pandemic. Stress, anxiety and worry can take a toll on employees’ health and well-being―both for those who have returned to the workplace and for those still working from home. In addition to the normal job pressures, there are heightened concerns about physical health and safety, as well as potential challenges relating to child care, burnout and more. Many of those working at home are missing the socialization and interaction they’ve grown accustomed to. All these factors can affect one’s mental health.

In late March and early April, Harvard Business Review’s nonprofit organization, Mind Share Partners, in a global study of more than 2,000 employees, found the mental health of almost 42% of respondents had declined since the outbreak began. That percentage has likely grown as the crisis worsened.

In a previous blog post, “How the Healthcare Industry Can Support Workers’ Mental Health During the Pandemic,” we offered suggestions including:

  • Proactively identify workers at risk of burnout, severe psychological stress or other issues by periodically surveying employees about their mental health or asking managers to talk one-on-one with staff about stress management.
  • Offer practical support through measures such as providing extra time off, scheduling increased staff to spread the workload, making mental health counselors available, and dispersing educational information on how employees can protect their mental health.
  • Keep track of workers’ mental health response to prepare for future outbreaks.

M2 Strategy Inc., a management and tech consulting company in McLean, Virginia, moved its 39 employees to a 100% virtual environment in early March, leveraging cloud-based tools and “an agile workforce,” co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Helo Mustafa told the Washington Business Journal. “We had to innovate and get creative on how best to maintain our interactive and transparent culture, high morale and strong employee mental health” while working remotely. The company gave employees a stipend so they could enhance their virtual experience by buying items such as high-definition video cameras, comfortable chairs, pillows and laptop stands. M2, which plans to stay remote until January, also offered leadership coaching services to its managers.

Mustafa said M2 uses videoconferences “so we can at least see each  other on a weekly basis, and that’s allowed employees to share their home lives to include pets, kids, family members, which creates a different bond that wasn’t really present when you are all in the office.”

Here at Medecision, we’ve offered our employees opportunities for additional time off during the business day to allow them to take a break and recharge. Employees were given an early release day one Friday for an early start to the weekend; a midday “siesta” to take time to do something fun outside of work; and a one-hour midday “recess” to take a break and recharge—whether that looked like watching television or going for a walk around the neighborhood.

California-based Salesforce extended its family care leave, making parents and guardians eligible for an additional six weeks of paid time off, Dave Rey, president of the company’s global public sector, told the Washington Business Journal. Salesforce also increased its child care offerings, so employees can get reimbursed up to $100 a day for five days each month through the summer; allowed parents and guardians to work from home in cases when schools have been canceled; and introduced a new benefits program “to help employees strengthen their and their family’s psychological and emotional health.”

Harvard Business Review offered insights on how managers can support employees’ mental health. Among the suggestions:

  • Be vulnerable. Honesty about your own discomfort can help to normalize mental health challenges while decreasing the stigma and encouraging others to open up.
  • Model healthy behaviors. Take care of yourself, offering a positive example of how you’re avoiding burnout.
  • Build a culture of connection through check-ins. The isolation of working from home can make it hard to notice others’ struggles. Demonstrate concern and offer help by regularly checking in, asking questions and carefully listening to the answers.
  • Offer flexibility and be inclusive. Expect change, be proactive and don’t make assumptions about what employees need. Be accommodating with scheduling to help them address child care and other challenges.
  • Communicate more than you think you need to. Keep employees informed about organizational changes or updates. Be clear in setting expectations about workloads and priorities. Make employees aware of available mental health resources, and encourage them to use them.

Demetris W. Cheatham and Allison McMurray, executives with the Raleigh, North Carolina-based enterprise open-source company Red Hat, make a business case for supporting emotional wellness. They advise that executives “lead with the data where possible,” including understanding employee sentiment and measuring engagement, looking at the case count for mental health support requests, determining mental health benefits utilization and claims for prescription medication supporting mental health, assessing the use of employee assistance programs, examining unplanned employee absences and requests for paid time off, checking attrition from burnout or for health reasons, and noting changes in productivity.

Cheatham and McMurray also suggest that companies, especially global ones, take advantage of digital solutions such as live and on-demand webinars and group and individual training on resilience and well-being.

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