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Staying back or heading back, let your employees’ mental wellness be top of mind

Venkat Neelakantan

This article was originally published in BusinessWorld and has been reproduced here with permission.

In times of the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus on employee well-being, whether at home or at the office, has assumed critical importance. As small groups of employees trudge back to offices, nothing is more important than the subject of employees’ mental wellness.

The reason? Mental wellness is an issue that doesn’t exist only in a state of work from home. Returning employees need as much care, if not more, as when they worked from home. Remember, we aren’t yet out of the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic – just the reason why employers need to think of an all-round, all-kind response plan for employees.

With technology becoming a key enabler for employee connect, companies should continue to promote meditation apps and online resources to access wellness programs. They can be used in real-time, at our convenience, and available on our palm. What employees also need in difficult times is specialized counseling, which inhouse and existing programs may be unable to provide.

If employees faced cognitive issues while at home, returning to office reinforces it for many. After a long period of continuous, close proximity with family, many find it difficult to suddenly switch over to the trials and tribulations of office life. Recognizing this, several companies are offering employees more flexible work options and paid time off.

Leaders have a key role in promoting employees’ mental wellness. As mental health is usually stigmatized, employees may hesitate to seek help. That’s why leaders should speak openly about what they themselves are going through – their emotional turmoil, its effect on their behavior, and its influence on their own abilities.

Over the past few months, VPN provider Surfshark has seen spikes in usage after midnight, indicating that workday barriers are eroding. The reverse is also true, as many employees may log in till late at the office due to cultivated habits. The leftover effects of isolation, as well as trying to get back to a regular work routine is tough, and it’s important to counsel employees who are struggling.

Before and during COVID-19, most companies regularly scheduled fun social activities for bonding, going beyond a Teams “water cooler” channel where colleagues posted fun things or interacted informally. For instance, a London-based firm has instituted a five-minute virtual dance party every afternoon. Activities like exciting tasks or cultivating a positive habit should continue either virtually or in office. They forge a sense of bonding and enjoyment that negates any ill-effects of crisis situations.

Good times or bad, at home or in office, one effective psychological measure is to train both leaders and employees in emotional intelligence (EI). What employees seek in difficult times is reassurance and encouragement from leaders. Leaders should strike the right tone and message with employees, and fully address their visible as well as unseen concerns.

Amazon got this just right! As one of few companies thriving in COVID-19 – and criticized for it – the world’s top e-retailer declared it would spend $4 billion of its pandemic-induced profits on initiatives to help its employees and the society. The message was clear, was authentic and established an emotional connect with employees.

An extension of this could be community work, which is a huge mental anchor for people. Practically the entire corporate world – big as well as smaller companies – have done their bit to help people at large.

But post lockdown, even employees will be free to participate in community work. Companies should encourage this actively, because nothing helps the human mind more than helping others.

The success of an organization demands that we seek out, listen to and leverage everyone’s voices and ensure every individual feels valued, cared for and respected. The WHO estimated that depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1 trillion in lost productivity annually. And that was a year back.

In these difficult times, organizations should build employee happiness and well-being as a key pillar of an overall D&I focus. In the current COVID-19 scene, nothing’s more paramount than employee morale, confidence and well-being. At the end of the day, it’s about living by a simple rule: ensuring our people are happy at work.

Welcome to Workplace 2.0!