‘This is definitely a tough time for everybody. I don’t think anybody is not affected by COVID-19’
Keeping employees physically healthy and safe has dominated HR departments ever since the COVID-19 outbreak began -- but protecting their mental health is also crucial in these challenging times.
These days, outside influences are affecting many employees, says Eileen Pease, president of Dynamic Learning, a workplace productivity consultancy in Halifax, in talking to Canadian HR Reporter.
“People are hearing about other people being laid off, they’re hearing about job losses. They’re hearing about reorganization and bankruptcies, so people who tend to be anxious about the future anyway would be extremely anxious right now. This is definitely a tough time for everybody. I don’t think anybody is not affected by COVID-19,” she says.
“It’s absolutely normal right now to be more anxious than usual, it’s normal to have sudden rushes of increased heart rate, raised blood pressure, not sleeping so well. Perhaps eating too much or not eating enough and very often, sleep is disrupted. Either people can’t fall asleep or they can’t stay asleep, or they wake up at four o’clock in the morning and can’t get back to sleep."
Experts have expressed concern Canada is heading for a mental health crisis amid the pandemic crisis.
Signs of trouble
So what are the signs that an employee may be suffering from a mental health crisis?
“It could be that the employee may be less productive than previously, may make more mistakes and may seem withdrawn and anxious but will often deny that anything is wrong. Other signs could be more irritability than usual, perhaps angry outbursts, coming in late, or less enthusiasm than usual or perhaps constant fatigue,” says Pease.
“[It’s also] somebody who previously was able to get their work done during work hours, seems to be staying late. And coming in early.”
A recent report by Deloitte suggests COVID-19's impact on mental health could last for years.
Once mental health problems have been identified in an employee, that person should be carefully and respectfully approached, according to Pease.
“Generally, the ideal person to bring it up would be the person’s manager but it could be a coworker.”
And being armed with information is the best way to approach and help the employee, she says.
“The first step I’d recommend is that the person who’s concerned would simply record some observations. It would be: ‘I noticed you were late last Monday, you arrived 20 minutes late; you were late last Wednesday,’ those kinds of things. Whatever the issue is, you want to have a record of what you literally have noticed because you’re going to start the conversation in a quiet, uninterrupted place with the employee.”
But it’s not always easy to address the concern, says Pease, due to the vagaries of human nature.
“Our world is still not very understanding about mental health or somebody having some kind of a mental health episode. Most people are very uncomfortable talking about it, especially if they suspect they might be having problems.”
And once it has been established that someone is suffering from mental illness, don’t send them home, she says.
“One of the symptoms of depression is feeling that you’re useless to everybody, that you are of no value, that you have nothing to offer. If you say, ‘We’re very sorry that you’re feeling depressed, go home and go to bed,’ that is the worst thing you can offer. The best thing is to stay at work and to get treatment, get help.”
HR can look for guidance from the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace – developed by Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) worked with the CSA and the Bureau de normalisation du Québec (BNQ) -- because “it focuses on promoting employee psychological health, and preventing psychological harm due to workplace factors,” she says.
Establishing buy-in from C-suite members will go a long way toward improving an organization’s overall mental health, she says.
“One of the most difficult things in a workplace is to get the most senior people, the CEO and the VPs, to talk about mental health because they are usually very uncomfortable with the idea of doing that and they’re afraid it will show them as having some kind of weakness. If they actually did talk about it, they would find they get a tremendous response. It’s such a relief for people to know this senior person has had some experience with mental health.”