Amid COVID-19 and remote-working struggles, this winter will be tough for many employees.
Image: iStock/JoaBal

Winter can be a difficult time of year as the days grow shorter and darker, and the falling temperatures increasingly force us indoors. But winter 2020 is expected to be a particularly testing time, as the usual stressors of the season combine with the anxieties that have been thrown up by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The stats speak for themselves. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 41% of American adults have struggled with mental health issues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. In the UK, research from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggests that almost one in five adults have been experiencing some form of depression this year – almost double the figure from 2019.

SEE: Wellness at work: How to support your team’s mental health (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Burnout is also reaching critical levels. According to a recent survey by FlexJobs and Mental Health America (MHA), 75% of workers have experienced burnout this year, with 40% citing it as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic. Ongoing remote working appears to be a contributing factor, with employees working longer hours and struggling to connect meaningfully with their work while workplaces remain shut.

For employers, having sufficient support and wellbeing resources is going to be critical for keeping workers motivated, engaged, and mentally healthy through the final furloughs of 2020 and into the New Year. Emma Carrington, advice and information service manager at Mental Health UK, says Wellness Recovery Action Plans (WRAPs) are a simple but effective way of helping employers identify when someone might be struggling with their mental health and are potentially at risk of burnout.

“[WRAPs] can help managers understand the factors that may influence someone’s wellbeing and identify the steps to take to help support them,” Carrington tells TechRepublic.

“Having one of these plans in place is a no-brainer, as it benefits both employer and employee. WRAPs can help managers understand the factors that may influence someone’s wellbeing and identify the steps to take to help support them.”

It may also be worth reviewing targets or objectives set for staff over this period, says Carrington.

“Stress levels can impact on our ability to function at 100% in our jobs, so showing empathy and an understanding of the challenges your team are facing is really important,” she says.

“This will not only strengthen relationships in your team, but it’s also likely to build a sense of loyalty too.

“If your workplace has an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), then remind people that the service is there for them and can offer support with a number of issues – EAPs are free of charge and offer a confidential service but are often under-used.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has spiked demand for mental health services, with many now stretched beyond capacity.

Despite this, reports suggest that many more people are in need of support but can’t get it, which has led psychiatrists in the UK to warn of a potential ‘tsunami’ of mental illness from problems that haven’t been addressed during lockdown.

These fears are supported by research from UK mental health charity Mind. In a survey of over 16,500 people earlier this year, 60% of adults and more than two-thirds (68%) of young people said their mental health had got worse during lockdown.

“It’s never been more important for employers to invest in employee mental health,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind.

“Those who prioritize staff wellbeing are more likely to report more productive staff who are less likely to need time off sick or leave the workplace altogether. Small, inexpensive measures can make a big difference.”

Senior management should be encouraged to lead conversations around mental health, which Mamo says can help challenge outdated and negative attitudes.

At the same time, businesses should ensure that support is well-advertised and easy to access, particularly while staff are working remotely.

“It can be harder to recognize when colleagues are experiencing poor mental health right now, particularly if you are managing a team remotely. That’s why regular communication is so important,” says Mamo.

SEE: COVID-19: A guide and checklist for restarting your business (TechRepublic Premium)

Blueprinting wellbeing around remote work

Like many organizations, Maestro Health transitioned to a remote model back in March. For Kim Howe, the company’s senior vice president of HR, it quickly became clear that additional support would be needed to help employees stay happy and productive while working from home.

“We’ve seen burnout become a real issue across industries since the pandemic began, and it’s up to company leaders to educate themselves and employees on the steps we can all take to reduce work-related stress,” Lowe tells TechRepublic.

“Back in April we introduced mental health days, or MHDays, to give employees some time to log off and prioritize their mental wellbeing. We’ve had two MHDays since the first one in April and plan to continue this initiative.”

In addition to allowing time for employees to disconnect, Maestro Health has launched a series of virtual culture and communication initiatives to ensure employees feel supported and can socialize with co-workers.

These events, paired with frequent communication from the leadership team, have helped employees feel more engaged while working from home and reduced burnout among the company’s workforce, Howe says.

SEE: Remote working: Why we feel more burned out now than we did in the office (TechRepublic)

Howe believes that the pandemic is beginning to shed light on how much more employers can do to tend to the needs of their remote workforce. As a result, Maestro Health is attempting to integrate more remote-focused cultural initiatives.

“Our Mental Health Stigma in the Workplace survey highlighted the rates of burnout and mental health challenges among employees before the transition to remote work, making it clear that this has been an ongoing issue for companies,” says Howe.

“It’s absolutely crucial that executives are promoting resources and policies that prioritize mental wellbeing, as well as offering frequent communication to encourage employees to find a healthy balance both at and outside of work – regardless of the remote work environment.”

Opening digital channels

Digital health platforms have seen massive uptake since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with doctors, GPs and other health professionals steering patients toward virtual appointments as a means of limiting face-to-face contact.

This includes digital mental health services, with remote sessions and online self-help platforms ensuring that people can get the support they need in lieu of in-person therapy.

Some companies already offer digital therapeutics and coaching platforms as part of their employment packages. However, Ken Cahill, CEO of digital therapy platform SilverCloud Health, says the pandemic has forced companies to recognize that offering wellbeing benefits is critical to attracting and retaining staff.

“Through a clinical lens, there is a direct correlation between the winter season and mental health, as seasonal affective disorder is a real and prevalent concern during this time of the year,” Cahill says.

“To handle this influx of employee-related needs and to make sure workers are productive, businesses should re-evaluate their current benefit packages and health insurance plans to include programs and resources that expand into the mental health realm, particularly during the November open enrolment time period.”

SilverCloud’s platform is already in used by more than 300 business customers, including Johns Hopkins University and England’s National Health Service (NHS). It offers over 30 mental health programs tailored around topics including COVID-19, stress, depression, anxiety and resilience.

SEE: WFH and burnout: How to be a better boss to remote workers (ZDNet)

The level of support depends on the need of the individual. While it’s been designed to “mirror” face-to-face therapy, if a user isn’t making progress, a clinician can be looped in to provide additional support.

“Clinically validated digital mental health platforms can be successfully used to help those with a variety of mental health concerns,” says Cahill.

“What’s most important when choosing a digital mental health platform for your employees is to pick one that offers clinically validated solutions with meaningful outcomes.”

Digital platforms can also be used to supplement in-person care, Cahill says: “In addition to clinically validated mental health platforms, employers can provide services through their human resources department to help employees feel engaged, connected and supported, including team building sessions, wellness days, healthy habits motivation, and more.”

Communication from the top-down

The benefits of promoting good employee mental health will extent long beyond the next few weeks and months: a report published by Deloitte in January 2020 found that poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45 billion ($59.1bn) each year. At the same time, for every £1 employers spent on workplace wellbeing interventions, Deloitte found that employers received an average £5 back as a direct result of lower absenteeism, presenteeism and staff turnover.

Yet trying to encourage employees across the finish line is going to prove particularly tricky this year: with winter on its way, and some countries in the midst of a second COVID-19 wave, employers will effectively be asking employees to run a sprint after already finishing a marathon.

“This arguably is a year where we have asked quite a bit of employees, and we will need to ask more,” says Ania Krasniewska, practice vice president, advisory at Gartner HR.

“Burnout will come at a time where most organizations will need employees the most – typically for any organizations that fourth quarter, the last few months setting up shop for the following year, is a really intensive time. You’re pairing that with companies trying to make an active recovery happen.”

Fortunately, it seems that businesses are generally aware of the difficulties the next few months pose – likely because they have had most of 2020 to think about it.

A study by Gartner found that more than two-thirds (68%) of organizations had already introduced at least one wellness benefit by late March, which suggests that businesses have been quick to realize the part they have to play in ensuring the mental wellbeing of their people.

SEE: Return to work: What the new normal will look like post-pandemic (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

For Gartner, the companies it perceives as moving ahead of the curve tend to group their efforts into three categories, Krasniewska says, the first of which is removing any negative perceptions or stigma around mental wellbeing.

“In most organizations, they have programmes in place or hotlines you can call, but there’s a lot of stigma associated with raising your hand and saying: ‘I’m a hotline caller!’,” says Krasniewska.

“Most people are in some variation of that boat, and if it’s not this week, it could be next week, so companies should work on that perception or any stigma associated with that and making it OK.”

Second, leader groups should champion communication around mental wellbeing. This includes sharing their own stories and encouraging employees to take time off if they need it.

“Use that leader group to be a big communicator and an ‘OK-er’ of efforts that they want to make,” says Krasniewska.

Finally, organizations should look beyond what Krasniewska calls the traditional layers of support by getting employees involved. This means establishing employee resource groups and tackling it much as they would any other diversity and inclusion issue.

“We should also keep in mind that it’s not just the employee themselves. Even if they’re “fine” they may have someone in their family who’s not,” says Krasniewska.

“Whether it’s this or any other aspect of a wellbeing programme, companies have to do a lot more coaching and communication: not just that it’s there, but sometimes also how to use it.

“Companies may just have to be a lot more prescriptive, and you may find that you actually have to teach people how to disconnect while at home.”