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Supporting your employees as COVID-19 restrictions drag on

|January 11, 2021

New Year’s Eve 2020 marked exactly one year since a mysterious illness was first reported in Wuhan, China. It’s amazing, and sobering, to think of all that has happened in the time since. COVID-19 has an obvious and devastating physical toll, having killed more than 1.8 million people around the world as of early January. What is less obvious, but still harrowing, is the impact it has had on our mental health. Human beings are social creatures, after all. We thrive on the same thing the virus does: close personal contact.

That has been taken away from us, and the results are worrying. A November survey in Quebec found “one in four adults (one in two young adults) reported symptoms consistent with generalized anxiety disorder or major depression”. The impacts of this on our sense of well-being are profound but much harder to see than a fever or sore throat.

Employers must be highly aware of this invisible but important impact of the pandemic. As many of us return to work in the new year, employers can’t assume that the change in the calendar means all wounds are healed. Vaccines are starting to be distributed, and that’s great news, but the best evidence suggests significant restrictions will be in place for months to come. The bars of our COVID-19 cages aren’t yet ready to be cut.

And that makes this return to work more difficult than others. Usually, we come back refreshed and with a sense of excitement and purpose. This year, most of us aren’t returning to work (in a physical sense), leaving us isolated during the darkest and coldest months of the year. How can organizations make sure their employees feel supported and engaged as restrictions drag on? How can they ensure both physical and mental health are priorities?

1. Acknowledge.

The first thing to acknowledge is that it’s not easy. These are novel circumstances, and anyone offering a perfect solution is either being dishonest or overconfident. A good place to start would be understanding exactly what employees are going through—what are their fears, and what are they looking forward to? The best way to do this is through an employee survey, a tool that NATIONAL has refined and used to great effect since the pandemic began.

2. Customize your approach.

The second tool, less scientific but just as important, is to “meet people where they are”. Recognize that a one-size-fits-all approach fits no one. Some people are handling isolation well. Others are struggling, often in quiet ways, but struggling just the same.

3. Find new routines.

While our regular January routines and resolutions may not be possible, challenge your team to find new ones. Turn your one-on-one meetings into walking meetings, where you connect on the phone as opposed to video call, commit to meeting-free times or days to focus on work or practice gratitude (both personally and professionally).

4. Encourage radical candor.

Having honest, constructive conversations with your team may be difficult when working in a virtual setting, especially since casual conversations and relationship building may feel less natural. However, it’s more important than ever to encourage open two-way conversation with your colleagues, with the ultimate goal of pushing each other to be our best selves.

There will be a natural tendency to bury all things 2020 as soon as the new year starts. Many of those things deserve to be buried, but one does not: our care and concern for the mental health of our friends and colleagues. Let’s hang on to that.