How companies can maintain employee mental health in the time of Covid-19

Topics Mental health | Stress | Coronavirus

Organisations are having to deal with a new spectrum of issues, much of it has to do with the mental health of employees. Photo: iSTOCK
Corporates have always had a critical role to play in India’s development and progress. In these testing times of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdown, the contribution of corporates has become even more invaluable if we are to bounce back stronger as a nation.


However, organisations are now having to deal with an entirely new spectrum of issues, much of it having to do with the mental health of their employees.


Unfortunately, isolation from society, the inflow of bleak coronavirus-related information, the fear of contracting Covid-19, the looming economic recession and a sense of helplessness are all impacting people’s mental well-being adversely, causing a lot of stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns.


A survey by the Indian Psychiatric Society revealed that during Lockdown 1.0 itself, there had been an alarming 20 per cent rise in mental health concerns. The crisis has also compounded the issues of those with existing psychological symptoms.


The effect of this crisis has been devastating on the economy as well. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMEI):

  • The average employment reduced from 404 million in March 2019 to 282 million in April 2020, which means that about 122 million people have lost their jobs, including 27 million youth.
  • From an estimated 78 million entrepreneurs and businesses in 2019-20, we were down to approximately 60 million by April 2020. 
This crisis has, in many ways, also become a turning point for corporate India's eco-system, with both positives and negatives emerging from it.


Most big corporations have initiated remote-working protocols, continued to pay salaries and the leadership has taken substantial pay-cuts to help the company stay afloat, which is truly commendable. But after a point, many corporations have also had no option but to resort to structured lay-off strategies to ensure sustainability. At the 24X7 BMC-Mpower 1on1 Helpline, we have received so many calls where the fear of losing one’s job and financial worries have caused stress, anxiety and even depression.


Many companies were quick to adopt the work-from-home model--using video-calling and virtual-meeting platforms, providing remote-working technology to employees and setting tasks and deadlines in practical ways. To keep operations going and give people a sense of purpose and achievement during this crisis is definitely a big positive. We humans are social creatures and social isolation can lead to feelings of restlessness, stress, anxiety and even anger. Remote working is allowing people to stay in touch with their office and co-workers, thereby reducing those feelings.


Having said that, although the concept of virtual workplaces had been grown steadily over the years, no one was ready for a 100 per cent shift to remote working so suddenly. While some have managed to adapt to the abrupt transition remarkably well, others have struggled considerably with it. The personalised human touch that people were used to in offices was imperative to our work culture. To accomplish things as a part of a team gives a sense of belonging and a feeling that one’s contributions are valued. The ‘new normal’ has taken away that human touch and made things a little too lonely and transactional for so many people out there.


Moreover, while video-calling has made work-from-home a viable possibility and a definite success, after weeks of having only virtual meets, Zoom fatigue is resulting in burnouts and low productivity. Experts say that video-calling and conferencing requires more focus than one-on-one interactions. Processing non-verbal cues, reading body language correctly and not having a natural rhythm to ease into conversations requires far more effort. Connection failures and response delays disrupt conversations and can make the responder seem less sociable or less focused.


For so many, remote working has reduced the time that one allocates to work, since it does not involve traveling to office and back. However, for many who are not that tech-savvy, working hours have increased, as the total shift to virtual technology has reduced their efficiency and increased the time required to accomplish tasks.


Before the pandemic and the lockdown, we all strived hard to achieve the optimal work-life balance. So many people used to struggle to spend time at home. With families self-isolating, stories of quality time spent bonding with the family are warming the heart. Simultaneously, for many others the boundary between home and work is now blurred. Children are at home and need attention. In the absence of domestic help, people are having to do their own cooking, cleaning and chores. For them, balancing the demands of the home with the pressures of one’s job is proving to be quite stressful.


What is it then that corporates can do to ensure the mental well-being of their employees?


At Mpower, we have a word for it–OASIS. Each letter of OASIS stands for a specific undertaking.


'O' stands for an Open Culture


Just as organisations need to always promote open conversations about mental health with leaders showing the way, the need of the hour is for companies to have open discussions about the future with their workforce by way of conferences, a circular or a video message. If companies can reassure people about their salaries, jobs and futures, it can go a long way in easing stress and anxiety. If a structured lay-off is on the cards, a candid but dignified approach must be adopted to accomplish the same.


'A' stands for Awareness


Besides ensuring that tasks are completed and deadlines are met, people in leadership roles now have the added responsibility of creating awareness about the mental health by organising online workshops, seminars and training programs for their employees. They must also be able to red flag mental health concerns in people and help them cope with them. The onus is on the management to boost morale and encourage mind-positive virtual workplaces.


'S' stands for Support


By assuring employees that any mental health concerns they experience will not endanger their jobs, organisations can help improve the mental well-being of their employees.


To deal with the pandemic blues, companies can have an internal campaign as well. At Mpower, for example, we’re providing mental health counselling services and informative video content to our entire team to help them cope.


Also, studies indicate that having a fixed routine and a structured life tends to increase productivity and improve mental health. Therefore, companies can support their workforce with a fixed and structured work schedule that will also allow them to balance their domestic needs with their work responsibilities much better.


'I' stands for Intervention


Organisations must also put into effect active interventions such as employee assistant programs in collaboration with mental health professionals to help employees tide over this difficult and despairing period. These interventions must offer free and confidential assessments, short-term counselling, referrals and follow-up services for those experiencing mental health issues.


'S' stands for Stress-busting Initiatives


Companies must encourage employees to eat well-balanced meals, exercise regularly to stay fit, limit the intake of coronavirus-related information, stay in touch with friends online and indulge in some ‘me time’ to de-stress and relax. All of these can be therapeutic and promote mental well-being, which, in turn, can help them in their work. For example, exercising reduces elevated cortisol levels, the body’s primary stress hormone. It also releases endorphins, our happiness hormones, which help us counter stress and anxiety.


Like we have done at Mpower, WhatsApp groups can be created for everyone to stay connected. These groups can become platforms for light-hearted chit-chat and the sharing of jokes, videos and experiences.


Employees should also actively be encouraged to take collective breaks while they work and enjoy a cup of tea/coffee or banter with each other online, just as they did during coffee and lunch breaks in office. They can even join online Yoga or hobby classes together – any group activity that promotes bonding and camaraderie.


All in all, corporations need to employ all their resources and innovations to safeguard their most valuable asset – the ‘mental health of their employees’. If workforces remain in positive spirits and good mental health, in the coming days, the crusade to regain lost ground will already have gotten the best start possible.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

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