4 Ways to Help Employees With Their Mental Health and Emotional Needs as You Reopen Offices
Leaders reopening offices need to be prepared to confront workers' stress and grief.
Call it the new normal. Or the next normal. Or even a return to 2019. Just don’t assume that workers will compartmentalize and minimize their experiences from the past year. Employees might be coming back to work, but they’re not the same as they were before the pandemic. They’re returning to their workstations with fresh perspectives — and fresh wounds and worries.
Benefit News reports that anxiety has risen by 25% among women in the workplace and 40% among older employees since the start of the pandemic. Knowing this, it’s no wonder that two in three people are concerned about moving back into traditional office environments.
Companies need to prepare for the new reality to avoid a massive loss of productivity in the workplace and weakened staff morale. Yet it can be tough for many leaders to figure out what to do and how to do it. Although they might understand that their workers are struggling with feelings of insecurity and burnout, they also want to make up for lost time and revenue. It’s a tough balancing act by any standards.
Serving business needs without overlooking human needs
Here’s the good news: The desire to earn profits isn’t incompatible with wanting a healthy, engaged workforce. Organizations can balance the needs of grief-stricken, worried workers with the needs of their companies.
The key is for employers to first acknowledge that no one is returning to work after Covid untouched. For some, their time has been spent dealing with the impacts of grief after losing loved ones, missing out on milestone moments because of health issues or family duties, losing stability, safety, security and going without access to support. Others carry burdens related to social unrest in the nation and the general upheaval of (and since) 2020.
Regardless of why they feel grief, worry or pressure, employees deserve the resources, benefits and training that best support them at their toughest times — not just their happiest.
Workers dealing with grief can’t bring their whole selves to work, which is only natural. Over time, their inability to concentrate on assignments chips away at efficiency, productivity and safety, both at an individual and corporate level. Grieving workers collectively cost companies an estimated $75 billion, and grief is a leading cause of workplace errors and accidents. Consequently, the choice to support team members in their grief can improve both engagement and your bottom line.
Minimize the impact of worker grief and stress
Of course, determining how to help employees through their grief can be overwhelming. Many companies have historically spent little time addressing grief in the workplace, particularly in any widespread way. Nevertheless, every company can start making positive, proactive changes by taking a few key steps to address employees’ emotional needs.
1. Ensure employee benefits address bereavement holistically
Most businesses offer employee assistance programs, or EAPs. Some also provide life insurance options for their workers. Although it's a good start, those plans do not address bereavement comprehensively. By its inherent makeup, life insurance does not generally provide in-depth assistance for bereavement or funeral planning. Similarly, EAPs may not tackle end-of-life or death experiences. Additionally, they’re underutilized across the board, posting usage rates of less than 10%.
This doesn’t mean life insurance and EAPs aren’t essential or valuable. They are and should absolutely be encouraged in order to increase their popularity and usage. At the same time, they’re not sufficient to help employees faced with the emotional fallout from the recent global health crisis. Other benefits, such as workshops and therapies that concentrate specifically on living with grief, PTSD and related mental health concerns should be used to fill in the gaps.
2. Solidify and communicate your bereavement policy
Companies do not legally have to follow any standard policy on bereavement. Most organizations allow three days for workers to deal with a loss. As anyone who has dealt with grief knows, a handful of days isn’t enough to work through the myriad feelings that come with losing a loved one or to manage the chaos and weight of end-of-life planning.
At least one-third of people have lost someone to Covid, and death will continue to affect people long after Covid resolves; loss and grief have always been and will always be pivotal parts of life. Now more than ever, companies need to revise older bereavement policies to match the current landscape. Leaders should implement comprehensive bereavement policies and ensure they’re easily accessible to each employee via handbooks or through an online portal. Without clear guidelines, overwhelmed employees might be afraid to ask for additional time off or assume they can take only minimal leave.
3. Offer inclusive resources for all workers
Humans deal with stress, grief and anxiety in unique ways. Their responses may be driven by cultural and social norms and other specific expectations. Some cultures encourage anger as a reaction to a death, for example. Others treat mourning and sadness as very private emotions. As such, companies need to ensure that the resources they provide team members are inclusive in areas such as identity, accessibility and format.
In addition, businesses need to arm their managers and supervisors with the tools and skills to identify and support grieving team members according to their needs. Many professionals have little training on bereavement in the workplace, which leaves them — and their teams — at a disadvantage. With best-in-class education, they can better serve the people they shepherd. Leaders who are more versed in leading grieving employees can take steps to help those employees, like working with others to take tasks off their plates and letting employees know a plan’s in place to keep things moving while they are away.
4. Communicate changes frequently
Death, mourning, depression and fear aren’t easy topics to tackle. That’s why so many companies shy away from them. But staying silent helps no one. All the preparation and resources in the world amount to virtually nothing if they’re not known or used.
While grief doesn’t need to be an everyday subject, it shouldn’t be hidden away or taboo, either. New updates to bereavement or leave policies should be articulated immediately and without hesitation. Reddit updated its leave policy to be significantly more flexible and inclusive, giving employees the option to take leave for things that maybe hadn’t been articulated before. The company’s approach lets employees know that they don’t have to fit into one specific box to take leave for grief, opening the definition to include life events such as miscarriage. This allows workers to know their options and act accordingly, all while feeling that grief isn’t something they need to hide from.
The months ahead will require companies and corporate leaders to put their emotional intelligence into high gear. Grief and stress can no longer be treated like rare human conditions best kept behind closed doors. They’re one of the most real parts of life, affecting every human being at least once, and are sometimes all-encompassing. Leaders who are ready to acknowledge this and take action will benefit from creating inclusive, supportive workplace cultures for workers returning to the world post-pandemic.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor