Return to Work

COVID-19: Return to Work Roadmap for Employers

By: Janet Pun

Published | May 20, 2020

Return to Work_COVID19

As a digital mental health organization, a few People leaders have reached out to us to:

  • Understand what we’ve learned about workforce mental health coming out of COVID-19
  • Steps their organization should take to safeguard their employees’ wellbeing 

While it may be years before researchers and sociologists uncover the full societal cost of COVID-19, we can give insights into the pandemic’s impact on employees’ mental health, and what kind of support they are looking for as they return to work.  

According to Mental Health Research Canada, our mental health has deteriorated significantly:

  • Before COVID-19, 5% reported high-to-extreme levels of anxiety
  • Five weeks later, that number has multiplied to 20%
  • Cases of depression have more than doubled, from 4% to 10%

These stats are consistent with Starling’s data, collected from over 4000+ members within our COVID-19 program. Our data also suggest that:

  • COVID-19 has deeply impacted 79% of people’s lives
  • 45% say this is due to the major disruptions affecting their life, and they are struggling with a lot of uncertainty around personal and family health, job status and workload, social isolation, and financial problems
  • In some professions like educators and healthcare workers, 60% say their anxiety has increased significantly

We know that stress and anxiety, when left untreated, is the pathway to depression, and a grave cost to an individual, their families, and their employer. 

How grave is that cost? 

According to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability and the greatest workplace challenge facing us. 

The effects of depression will have massive implications on our global health system, as poor mental health is a high-risk factor for chronic physical illness.

So what are some of the major concerns employees have right now? They are worried about the day-to-day stuff: 

  • How will our office space look like and work? 
  • Will desks be kept 6 feet apart?
  • Will we need to bring our own personal protective equipment if there’s not enough supply?
  • Can I choose to work from home if I’m afraid of getting exposed? 
  • What do I say to my colleagues if I was exposed to COVID-19? Do I need to disclose it to them? 

If there’s anything we’ve learned from this pandemic, is that we needed actionable insights to combat the effects of COVID-19. 

In most workplaces now, employees’ stress, anxiety, and worry levels have skyrocketed. COVID-19 has been a traumatic, societal event for many of us due to the uncertainty and disruptions to normal routines, and life-altering changes that came too quickly.

Many employees have experienced some type of trauma, such as: 

  • Losing a loved one
  • Being laid off
  • Fear of losing their job
  • Financial difficulties
  • Social isolation
  • Relationship problems 

They are likely in survival mode, which means they are doing everything they can to get through these times, but aren’t thinking about the long-term mental health effects of COVID-19. 

At Starling, we knew that when it came to our own employees’ mental health, there is no one size fits all approach; it’s the same when it comes to our workplace mental health policies.

In preparation for our team’s return to work, we sent out a survey to understand how our employees wanted to transition back to work, with minimal stress and anxiety. Our survey results revealed that employees wanted to choose their work schedules and to transition out of working remotely slowly. 

We know it’s hard being a leader sometimes. You’re often the person employees turn to in the face of uncertainty, but it will be important for leaders to be compassionate and flexible; avoid the temptation to “stick to a decision” in an attempt to appear decisive. Instead, review new data, information, and feedback regularly and change your policies accordingly. 

For digital platforms like ours, we built our insights tool around the concept that data isn’t about listening to respond but listening to understand first and then working together to plan and then respond. That will be your key to your business surviving post-COVID-19.

From a logistical perspective, here’s what leaders should consider for their return-to-work policies:

  1. Stagger Employees’ Return to Work – it will lower your employees’ anxiety and worry about being exposed and contracting the virus
  2. Maintain Remote Working Policies – this will be important in allowing your employees the flexibility to decide how they want to approach work. Some employees don’t have the luxury to risk their family’s health to work in the office. Be respectful of that as it will help lower their anxiety and guilt for needing a more flexible work schedule
  3. Rethink Your Physical Setup – employees will be worried about maintaining a safe distance from their colleagues so be sure to space out the desks by 6 feet to lower their anxiety about contracting the virus
  4. Rebuild Workplace Morale and Culture – look for ways to rebuild workplace morale, especially for businesses who were hit heavily by COVID-19. COVID-19 has significantly impacted many employees’ mental health due to layoffs, restructuring, and disruptive business changes. Practice compassion and make sure department leads check up on their teams regularly
  5. Review Your Organization’s Needs – how we view work has changed now, and likely your organization will have infrastructure gaps to support your employees physically and mentally. So be sure that every department reviews their current operations and processes, and act swiftly to identify and resolve any gaps crippling team productivity and wellbeing
  6. Maintain Transparency and Two-Way Communications reassure employees who naturally have questions and be open about your future business plans and their role; this will lower their anxiety over job security
  7. Implement Learnings – smart businesses will seek to implement lessons learned during COVID-19 and reinforce them as work practices 

We know that what may work for us may not work for you. So, each organization will need to assess what their workforce’s key stressors are, what resources they need to support employees physically and mentally, and to look for resources that are missing to rebuild its workplace health infrastructure.  

If you need help with that, definitely reach out to us. Our Mental Fitness program is designed to help you identify what employees are struggling with and build up their resilience and confidence to return to work. 

We know it’s been a challenging time for many organizations and their leaders. But if there was one thing we gained from this experience is how important our physical and mental health is for ourselves, our families, our communities, and our businesses. 

We wish we didn’t have to go through this crisis to learn it, but we did, and we have to do something about it now.  

Without effective mental health resources in place, it will cost your organization your best employees. But, the silver lining is that we have the technology, data, and resources to prevent that from happening.

Are you interested in our Mental Fitness program?

Reach out to us to learn more.

Janet Pun

Janet is an energetic and passionate lover of all things related to marketing and brand strategy. With her background in tech, digital media, and mental health advocacy, she hopes to make the world and the people who live in it a bit happier and healthier.

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