The pandemic has taken a toll on our health and well-being. For many, it has also changed our relationship with work because we’ve had to risk our own safety to continue working in person, because we’ve had to reevaluate our work-life balance while working from home, or because we’ve experienced job insecurity.
THE STATE OF WORKERS’ MENTAL HEALTH
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 41% of US adults reported experiencing elevated levels of stress, anxiety or depression during the pandemic, as compared to just 11% in June 2019. This stress contributes to nearly one third of US adults reporting trouble sleeping or eating and 12% experiencing worsening of chronic conditions. According to the study, some of the primary causes of stress were job security, isolation, and personal and family health.
These stressors affect groups differently. For example, young people reported more stress – 56% of people between 18 and 24 report experiencing stress, anxiety, or depression during the pandemic.
Similarly, 53% of all those experiencing job or income loss reported stress, as compared to 32% of those who did not experience job or income loss. Additionally, women, particularly mothers, low-income households and communities of color report higher levels of stress, anxiety, or depression.
Frontline workers experienced particularly high levels of stress, with 62% reporting that the pandemic negatively affected their mental health. Exposure to COVID and the fear of passing it to their families was a paramount concern (80% of workers reporting this concern), and it is estimated that 1 in 6 frontline workers contracted COVID.
For those working from home, stressors varied based on the home environment and level of workplace support. Some of the major stressors cited by teleworkers included role ambiguity, lack of autonomy, technical difficulties and work-family conflict.
We spoke with two Assistant Professors of industrial-organizational psychology at Georgia Tech, Dr. Keaton Fletcher and Dr. Kimberly French, to talk about prioritizing well-being in the workplace as the pandemic diminishes.
Both Fletcher and French note that some stressors of the pandemic have shifted from immediate health concerns and work-life conflict to the ambiguity that lies ahead as workplaces transition back to pre-pandemic operations. Fletcher and French explain that differing expectations, especially around safety, may be a point of conflict and stress as people navigate how they should act (whether they should wear a mask, shake hands, etc.).
So how can employers and employees alike recover from the stressors of the last year and address the ambiguity of what comes next?
For employees, Fletcher says that an important part of managing stress is understanding what is within your control. For things within your control, take charge and adjust to fit your needs. For example, if you are a hybrid teleworker and office worker, choose telework days that best fit your family’s schedule. For things outside of your control, Fletcher says the first step is negotiating with your supervisor to seek compromise. If no compromise can be made, he says the next step is to shift your mindset from controlling to problem solving and minimizing emotional impact by recognizing your thought patterns (like fixating on things beyond your control) and by practicing mindfulness.
Mindfulness and exercising control, where possible, are important steps for individual employees to prioritize their well-being. What’s also vital to employee well-being is employers demonstrating their care for their employees. Overall, Fletcher says that employers need to meet the three psychological needs of their employees to promote individual well-being:
- Competence: Employees need to feel like they can finish and master tasks, rather than solely performing repetitive tasks
- Relatedness: Employees want to feel connected to people and build meaningful relationships at work
- Autonomy: Employees thrive when they have some control over their work and schedule
According to French and Fletcher, here are some ways employers can meet these psychological needs:
1. Maximize Employee Voice and Control
According to French and Fletcher, one of the first (and most important) steps in supporting employees in the workplace is listening to employee concerns and desires and acting to address them, when possible. French says that open lines of communication for input and feeling like you’re being taken seriously help employees feel empowered and understood. A sincere effort to listen to and incorporate the opinions of employees can make a big difference.
2. Respect and Encourage Work-Life Boundaries
Both French and Fletcher note that clear and respected work-life boundaries are important to preventing employee burnout. Respecting employee’s control and autonomy when they are not on company time reinforces that you care about them. Beyond respect, though, Fletcher says that work-life boundaries need to be required, because asking people to think about work during family time creates a conflict for those employees. French suggests that one way you can respect this boundary is by scheduling your emails to send to an employee when they are on the clock. That way, you don’t introduce pressure to respond on their personal time.
3. Promote Equity through Flexibility
One way that employers can champion equity is by considering who may need more flexibility and work to accommodate it. For example, family or sick leave needs may vary depending on personal and family health. Further, not only does flexibility need to be available, but French says that employees need to feel like they can actually use their leave, coordinate flextime, and choose telework days without fear of punishment. Additionally, Fletcher says that it needs to be the responsibility of the supervisor to work with employees to understand their individual needs. French says that, especially for shift workers, predictable schedules that still meet their personal time needs are key.
4. Prioritize Worker Safety
For some employees, the pandemic revealed rifts between themselves and the management in their organization. Especially for frontline workers, who may have felt ill-prepared or unsupported by their employers during the pandemic, repairing that relationship is key to moving forward. Both Fletcher and French note that cases where employees felt undervalued or unsupported during the pandemic was an example of a breach of the psychological contract between an employer and employee, where the employee expects the employer to protect their health and well-being.
French says that to repair this relationship, it’s important that employers ensure the safety of workers, especially given the ambiguity around workplace norms going forward (vaccination protocols, mask wearing, etc.).
5. Practice Gratitude
French says that showing gratitude towards employees is a form of respect. It’s important for employees, regardless of their job, to feel valued by their employer.
6. Provide Fair Pay and Benefits
Of course, French says that one of the best ways to show gratitude for your employees is by offering fair, living wages and comprehensive benefits to all employees. The pandemic only further proved that job insecurity and household economic instability are significant stressors that affect the well-being of employees. Fletcher says that by offering fair wages and benefits, employers can remove barriers to health access and reassure employees that they value their well-being.
Need some more guidance? Check out these resources:
- Dr. Keaton Fletcher’s Healthy Work Podcast
- The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
- NIOSH Total Worker Health Guidance
- Oregon Healthy Workforce Center
- NBC – How to Help the Unemployed During the Coronavirus Pandemic
- Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) White Papers