We are months deep into a pandemic and getting work done has become a lot harder than usual. Exceptions aside, the corporate world has not taken adequate measures to take care of employee mental health. And this is largely why conditions like anxiety, stress, burnout, and depression are on the rise. While it is true that conversations about mental well-being have entered workplaces, mere awareness is not enough. We are in a stage where we must take concrete action to prevent the ongoing mental health crisis—dubbed “the second pandemic”—from worsening. For if we don’t, experts say that we will suffer severe consequences well into 2021. But what’s broken can be fixed. Here are some measures that employers must implement to end performative mental health support at work.
Stop overworking employees
One would think that a deadly pandemic would reduce working hours because we have more important things to focus on, like staying virus-free and alive. But research has shown that the average workday has now increased by three hours per day. Given that people are working from home with family, and can no longer step out to escape the daily grind, this is a surefire recipe for burnout. Burnout reduces employee engagement, hampers productivity, and increases attrition.
From a purely capitalistic point of view, poor work-life balance is bad for your bottom line. So for the love of whatever you believe in, please manage your expectations realistically. Instead of fixating on pre-pandemic productivity, give people the freedom to structure their workday according to their lifestyle. For example, if a working parent needs an afternoon nap as a consequence of constant parenting, they must have the autonomy to take it. You know, instead of getting through the day on willpower and caffeine. A humane, toxic positivity free attitude will not only help keep employees sane, but it will also ensure loyalty in the long run.
Cut down on meetings
Due to technological advancements, constant connectivity has become a significant problem over the past few decades – and remote work has made it impossible to ignore. We are now attending more meetings than ever and unfortunately, Zoom/video calls are much more exhausting than in-person meetings. I’m neither making this up nor exaggerating. There’s even a term for this phenomenon: Zoom fatigue.
We all need to try our best to respect personal boundaries and stick to business hours. It’s unethical to expect anyone to be available round the clock just because they have good Wi-Fi and nowhere really to go. Remember the pre-pandemic complaint ‘this meeting could have been an email’? It was funny because it was true but now we must try and live by this maxim. Instead of being available round the clock, workers should be encouraged to prioritize self-care and be accessible only within business hours. And let’s please put hustle culture to rest, if only temporarily.
Normalize mental health days
In 2017, many of us heard of an individual who was brave enough to declare that she needed time off from work to take care of her mind – web developer Madalyn Parker. Between then and now, how many people do you know who have told their manager that they’re taking a mental health day or two? I only know folks across various industries who’ve given socially accepted reasons like coughs, colds, and headaches. Instead of stating that they’re overwhelmed and need some downtime, people feel more comfortable lying because they don’t want to be discriminated against. When these very folks are unable to lie and get time off, they drag themselves to work just for the sake of appearance. When they aren’t well enough to focus on work, why should they show up at all?
Mere presenteeism, whether virtual or real-world, is pointless, so why not encourage employees to take mental health days? We’ve focused on work ethic alone for far too long, it’s high time we also give rest ethic the attention it deserves. We need to learn to prioritize rest and not use it as a reward after a win. Remember rest is not something to be earned, it’s a necessity that everyone deserves. Workers must feel free to take breaks to deal with the new normal instead of being compelled to hustle as if their job depends on it.
Provide regular training and resources
True mental health support can only be possible when the management and employees are fully aware of the complexities of the mind. For example, education will help a manager understand that productivity varies from person to person, especially now that we are working from our homes and not from a common office space. Also, sensitivity training must be imparted so that managers can recognize and address warning signs in an empathetic manner. For example, if a top-performer suddenly becomes careless, they must not be instantly labeled as a liability. Instead, someone should reach out to them and find out if they are say, depressed, or burned out and need help.
To encourage workers to talk about their feelings, confidentiality must be guaranteed as well. One on one communication is key here; group check-ins like asking “how are you guys?” in a meeting are of no use. Also, updated and relevant resources like stress management must be provided regularly so that everyone, even those who don’t feel comfortable revealing their identity, can get the help they need. If it’s in your budget, encourage sessions with the company therapist. If you can’t afford a therapist, you can always direct them to human resources, who should be approachable in the first place. Also, you must use free/affordable therapy resources online, resources that are both inclusive and diverse.
Speak up about your issues
Making declarations like you have an open door policy is a good start, but it’s not enough. Mental health cannot be a ‘once and done’ item on your to-do list. To truly eradicate stigma, it is the responsibility of the upper management to share their struggles. It’s not necessary to say, conduct a specific webinar on it. A casual approach, like a founder mentioning that they had a panic attack but felt better after some grounding exercises, can be far more impactful. Conversational mentions like these will normalize mental health issues and humanize the founder in question.
When big shots reveal that they too are just as vulnerable as us, they can help eliminate the stigma that comes with illnesses like anxiety and depression. In fact, we need to go beyond anxiety and depression, because even though they are overwhelmingly common, there are many other conditions that need to be discussed. The pandemic is going to be with us for a while, and according to a study published in The Lancet Psychiatry journal, “One in five COVID-19 patients develop mental illness within 90 days”.
Check if your culture is inclusive and healthy
The culture of a company has a major impact on an employee’s mental health. What is your culture like? Is your human resources personnel well trained? Are people of diverse genders, races, religions, and castes made to feel welcome or othered? Are your workplace policies friendly to women and other minorities? How do you address issues like racism, bullying, sexual harassment, and favoritism?
And since we’re on the topic of mental health, how mental health-friendly are you? For example, are people speaking up about their struggles at all? So much stigma persists even in a pandemic, employees are terrified of opening up about mental health. I know friends in thriving multinational companies in India and the US who have received *ZERO* mental health support at work. Other than stock phrases like “mental health matters”, most corporates haven’t changed in 2o2o. In fact, people are being made to feel as if they are supposed to be grateful for having a job right now. It’s exploitative and will have lasting consequences.
With these measures, we can get closer to living in a world where people aren’t forced to quit their jobs to keep their minds healthy. It’s crucial to make the move from hashtag activism and performative support to concrete, real-world action. A casual approach that only looks good on social media should no longer be accepted.
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