As the COVID-19 pandemic extended beyond a couple months of working remotely, five work companions from a New York AI and machine-learning company searched vacation rental websites for a place they could isolate together to work and enjoy each other’s company. They ended up leaving their cities (one lived in Boston) for a five-bedroom restored bed-and-breakfast in Westbrook, Connecticut.
“We come from a company that has a really strong culture. We like going into the office,” one of the workers told The New York Times. “And we all hang out and are friends outside the office.”
The colleagues (ranging in age from 27 to 42) adopted a regular work schedule and enjoyed Wiffle ball, volleyball, card games, bonfires and karaoke nights around a piano in off hours. Collectively, they agreed the June arrangement benefited their social lives as well as their workday productivity. It was a hybrid office and summer camp.
“I really feel like I’ve become better at my job,” one of them told The Times. “Just constantly brainstorming and iterating and being able to trade knowledge.”
Online comments from readers mostly expressed admiration for the five coworkers’ ingenuity, though some disparaged the privilege it exposed of a group of highly paid professionals who were able to escape urban environments that were experiencing high rates of coronavirus cases. Many readers mentioned a disparity in income problem in the U.S. that the pandemic has further exposed.
No matter where you fall on the approval scale of this particular story, it is testament to the value that workers place on camaraderie and collaboration with colleagues. These workers were willing to shell out $2,400 apiece to create a pop-up office for one month.
Anxiety is bubbling up
The story also lays bare a primary concern of executives, HR professionals and mid-level managers as they continue to monitor the mental health of their workers, most of whom have been working from home since mid-March.
The United States is unique in tying health care to employment for the majority of those who are covered by health insurance. As a result, employers are morally responsible to help their workers maintain strong mental health as well as physical well-being. The Wall Street Journal reports that an increasing number of companies are creating a chief medical officer role within their ranks. “The more you actually have to be responsible for caring for people, the more likely you need a CMO,” Andrew Diamond told WSJ. Diamond is chief medical officer of One Medical, a company that provides primary medical care in the workplace to companies including Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google.
Ashwini Zenooz, a medical doctor who holds the CMO title at Salesforce.com, told WSJ that since the COVID-19 outbreak, her role has shifted from focusing on software products that Salesforce sells to clients in the medical industry to helping the tech giant’s employees address mental health issues that can arise from working remotely. She is also working with Salesforce’s real estate division to help ensure a return to the office, whenever that occurs, is safe for workers.
Anxiety is the word most frequently mentioned as a key concern, along with burnout, isolation and depression. Experts say it’s too early to assess the psychological impact on any broad level of sending office workers home and having them collaborate almost entirely digitally. It’s past time, however, for HR professionals and managers to implement programs that educate workers about the potential health problems that could arise, communicate empathy for the situation, promote open discussion and provide professional assistance to those who need it.
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) surveyed more than 1,000 U.S. employees working remotely and between 22% and 35% reported feeling emotionally drained, having trouble concentrating or losing interest in activities they once enjoyed. That study was released in May. The numbers could be higher now.
“We have found that people often don’t get education about mental health until they have a diagnosis for depression or something along those lines,” says Laurie Sharp-Page, a licensed psychotherapist and founder of Sprouting Change. Her Ohio-based company helps businesses foster mental health awareness and wellness through education and workshops.
“A lot of prevention can happen just by educating people about mental health and how they take care of their mental health. There is a small window of time for people. When they say ‘I could use support,’ we need to meet them there and get them that help quickly,” she says.
Sprouting Change provides employers a means to offer employees an educational webinar on anxiety and other mental health issues. That can be followed by smaller discussion groups tailored more to employees’ questions and needs. Sprouting Change also help employees connect with mental health service providers in their area.
Awareness is priceless
Many companies — perhaps even most companies — have shown great care for their workers as they navigate the challenges of continuing to operate under unprecedented circumstances, although there are examples of less worker-friendly approaches. The Wall Street Journal reported in July that oil refining giant Phillips 66 ordered the majority of its 2,300 employees that work at its Houston headquarters to report back to the office.
“If we in the energy business are reluctant to go back to the office, why should other people go back? How can we get our economy going again?” Phillips 66 Chief Executive Greg Garland reportedly stated in a video circulated internally. Texas was among the states that experienced a significant spike in coronavirus cases and deaths this summer.
Juxtapose that message with advice from Greg DeLapp, CEO of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA). Now, more than ever, says DeLapp, employers need to be transparent about the anxiety they are feeling themselves. EAPA is the leading provider of education and services to employee assistance professionals and others interested in issues affecting the behavioral health and wellbeing of employers and employees.
“If managers don’t acknowledge their anxiety, let alone address it, their ability to lead companies back to pre-Covid productivity and engagement levels will be severely compromised,” DeLapp says. “In recent years, it’s become more acceptable for leaders to show glimpses of vulnerability, which some argue makes them more relatable and more effective leaders. For that person to come out pretending [uncertainty] is not the case is disingenuous and is read that way immediately. It comes across as, ‘How are you supposed to relate to the concern I’m about to raise with you when you pretend that it doesn’t even exist in your world?’ ”
While the best managers are adept at increasing engagement, productivity, profitability and a host of other bottom-line issues, few have virtual management experience. Efficiently managing a remote work force requires a significant mind-set shift, particularly as managers are required to extend their influence to people they rarely see outside of video chats. Many managers are acquiring new skills for overseeing remote teams. A key aspect heard repeatedly by coaches and consultants is to communicate. In fact, err on the side of overcommunicating. And keep in mind that communicating includes listening.
“The communication between an employer and their employee has a massive impact on a worker’s productivity and overall motivation,” Braden Smith, a content creator for Sawseekers, an Amazon affiliate that reviews all types of saws, told Sales & Marketing Management.
Smith says he has experienced this first-hand. His boss checks in weekly to discuss his health, his family, his anxiety level and whether his work load is causing problems in other areas of his life. He has received gift baskets from his employer as a token of appreciation for his steady performance.
Michael Mercer, a business psychologist and author, manages a team of workers for his company Mercer Systems LLC, a provider of pre-employment psychological testing. Mercer says during the pandemic, he has scheduled a biweekly call with every employee to discuss only non-work topics.
“I start each meeting by saying, ‘During this call, we will not talk about work. Let’s only talk about your life other than work. I promise I will not judge, nor criticize you. I only want you to have me available to open up to — to help you feel better outside your work activities.’ They tell me about their home life, how they are coping with working from home, how they feel about not coming to office, and even tell me about some physical concerns.”
When one employee mentioned a skin problem he was dealing with, Mercer relayed that he had dealt with a similar problem. He told him about a non-prescription cream that could help and even sent over a tube of it.
“In the office environment, he never would have told me about that skin problem. But on the phone with me, he opened up,” he says.
A benefit that’s win-win
Sharp-Page says managers should remember that anxiety is not inherently bad. Workers with anxiety shouldn’t be made to feel like they have to escape it immediately. “Anxiety is a feeling like any other. It can be a helper to people by keeping them safe. It often acts as a motivator,” she says. “The issue is when anxiety gets too high and impedes performance.”
Many employers offered counseling and similar services as part of their benefits package before the pandemic struck. Others have added it since the coronavirus outbreak. Neil Taparia, an entrepreneur who started and sold a software company and founded another start-up, Solitaired, says his company began subsidizing traditional therapy for team members, and he is investigating offering his workers online therapy through Ginger.io.
“It’s been a hugely popular benefit. One employee actually commented that they would not have thought about therapy if we hadn’t offered the benefit. In our employee engagement surveys, we’ve seen that we’ve been able to perform past our benchmarks despite the pandemic.”
In this environment, employers are increasingly recognizing that investing in preventative measures and early identification of mental health problems is an expense that makes sense. “You normalize that everybody is feeling stress around this situation. If you don’t deal with it now, and the employee goes into a full-blown crisis of some sort, you may lose access to that person and end up with workers’ comp issues or a person on long-term disability,” says Sharp-Page. “Investing a little bit of time now is going to be a whole lot more beneficial than letting these things accumulate and bubble up later.”