Employees are returning to work, sending their children back to school and resuming “normal life” after years of pandemic challenges. But one thing that does not return to normal: good mental health.
Nearly 76% of employees say they still struggle with at least one symptom related to a mental health issue like anxiety, depression or PTSD, up 17% from 2020 rates, according to a report by the US Surgeon General. A September survey by Gallup found that employees who rate their mental health as “fair” or “poor” miss four times as many days of work as those with better mental health.
“Everyone was in survival mode – when COVID started it was this feeling of, OK, this is going to be a thing for a little while, and then it’ll be over,” says Dr. LaToya Smith, a board-certified psychiatrist. in health and professor at the University of Palo Alto. “But we’re not fully out of it yet. We’re in a space of collective grieving and we can’t get back to pre-COVID life. We’ve been cracked.”
Yet for many employees, the isolation of remote work has provided effective cover for their mental health. It can be much more difficult to spot the warning signs it would signal a change in a person’s mental well-being if managers don’t interact in person, Smith says.
“Isolation and lack of connection with co-workers can really impact employees,” she says. “I know it’s hard to figure out how to do it, but reaching out to employees and having this human-to-human moment of saying, ‘Hey, looks like something’s going on, I wanted to check it out. It gives them permission to say, ‘You know, I fight.'”
Managers and even other employees may be aware of behaviors such as drastically increasing work hours, which could signal a blurring of boundaries and a lack of work-life balance. Other signs like taking unexplained absences from work can be a sign that something is wrong.
“Some people may work more when working from home because the lines are blurred and there’s not as much separation between work and home,” Smith says. “If you notice someone working 80 hours a week, contact them and give them permission to know they don’t have to.”
Beyond these verbal checks, employers can direct workers to their benefits offerings and ensure they are aware of what is available and how it works. Despite the widespread adoption of mental health resources, Gallup’s survey found that only 43% of employees are aware that such help is available to them.
“At the bare minimum, employers should have an EAP in place so people can get free or low-cost mental health services, and they should remind employees that these benefits exist,” Smith said. “A really big problem that costs nothing is modeling self-care and boundaries in the workplace. If someone takes a day off for a mental health day, help your employee do it.”
This attitude can start at the top and help employees feel comfortable expressing their feelings and needs. It also sets the tone that it’s okay to ask for help and that employees aren’t dealing with their emotional challenges alone.
“It’s important for employers to remember that yes, this person has a job, but we are humans first and foremost,” Smith says. “It’s so important to rest and play in our lives too, not just work.”