When COVID-19 first hit, one of the most noticeable changes I observed was the impact on workplaces. All of a sudden, companies were forced to care about their employees’ lives outside of work in ways they never had before. It became practically impossible to hide the fact you were a spouse, a parent, a caregiver, a fur mama/papa — someone who had responsibilities outside of your day job.
Work and life began to meld together, allowing for bosses, direct reports, and colleagues alike to see themselves and each other as whole beings, rather than simply as employees or colleagues. At the same time, this melding of work and life all but erased any boundaries between working hours and non-working hours, leading to increased job burnout and exhaustion. Even as an entrepreneur, without being able to do many of my regular outside-of-work activities – like hang out with friends, go to the gym, and travel – I’ve noticed an uptick in my workaholic tendencies and have struggled to find a sustainable work/life balance.
This is new terrain for us all – working during a pandemic – and there’s going to be a lot of trial and error as we find our footing in this new way of life. If you are looking for a place to start, here are four suggestions for how workplaces can improve employee well-being during COVID-19.
1. Encourage Time Off
The lines between work and life are blurry at the moment. With Zoom and virtual meetings being the norm for many employee interactions — and without many extracurricular activities to occupy people’s time — employees are more “available” than ever. This, however, should not mean you are scheduling meetings outside of working hours nor expect your employees to work longer hours than usual. Just because someone is “available” doesn’t mean they should allocate that time to work. There is mounting evidence that working non-stop is both counterproductive and harmful to one’s mental health, leading to anxiety, depression, and burnout.
Adam Grant, a Wharton professor and organizational psychologist, tweeted early on in quarantine: “If you’re working from home, the pandemic has extended the average work day by 2-3 hours. Now is the ideal time to reverse that trend by testing out 6-hour work days or 4-day work weeks.” This is a great reminder that companies have the opportunity to adapt to new challenges and create positive change for their employees. I’ve even heard of companies granting their employees extra COVID-19 PTO days, acknowledging the reality of longer working hours during the pandemic.
2. Practice Compassion
Don’t expect employees to be on their A game right now. When people are in flight or flight survival mode – a natural response to a deadly pandemic – they will inevitably have a harder time being creative and productive. In fact, Barbara Frederickson’s Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions argues that people’s vision of what is possible – as in their actual peripheral vision – narrows when they don’t feel safe. So be compassionate with where people are at and remember they are doing the best they can.
3. Create Psychological Safety
Creating psychological safety is always an important workplace goal but it has never been more important than now. COVID-19 has shaken most people to their core, left them questioning if their most basic needs – food, shelter, health – will be met. The last thing they need to worry about is office politics and if they will be judged for not showing up as their best selves the past few months. Employees need to know their feelings and emotions matter, that their workplace cares about them as people, not only for their productivity. You can lead by example by being vulnerable and sharing your own feelings about what’s been going on or simply asking your employees: “How are you really doing?”
4. Add Mental Health Services to Your Benefits Plan
While it is obvious that we are in a physical health crisis, it may be less obvious that we are also in a mental health one as well. People are experiencing anxiety and depression in a profound way, grieving the way things were, and terrified of what the world will become. In addition to thinking through cleaning protocols, social distancing, and remote working policies, it is vital that companies figure out how to support their employees’ mental health and wellbeing as well. Adding a service like Talkspace to your benefits plan so employees can access affordable therapy from the comfort of their homes will be critical in helping them – and the company as a whole – weather these uncertain times.
As difficult as the last few months have been, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see how many companies have rallied to take care of their employees. I hope this people-first mentality will continue into a post-COVID world and that the future of work may look more flexible, more sustainable, and ultimately, more human. There may be no better time to change the workplace for the better.