How can employers offer long-term support for employees with stress and anxiety?

Need to know:

  • Line managers need to keep the lines of communication with employees open to ensure they spot the signs of stress and anxiety.
  • Organisations need to keep employees up to date with any business issues and allow them to voice any concerns to alleviate any stress due to the unknown.
  • Employers should look at adapting their health and wellbeing strategies for a transient workforce.

With many employees furloughed, the fear of redundancies, and the way we work dramatically changed for the foreseeable future, it is no surprise that some employees are suffering from high levels of anxiety and stress.. But with no-one really knowing what the new normal really means, how can an employer take care of its workforce’s mental health long term?

Kirsten Samuel, chief executive officer (CEO) at employee wellbeing consultancy Kamwell, says: “People are going through extraordinary challenges and it’s different for every person, so if ever there was a time to show timeliness and compassion, it’s now. Organisations should be starting to demonstrate their support for employees and really focus on how to alleviate any feelings of stress and anxiety.”

The personal touch

With a large number of employees still working from home right now, it would be easy for some of them to slip through the cracks. Therefore, employers should listen to their staff and try not to second guess what they need or what problems they may be facing, says Samuel.

“Some organisations are going through really big restructures or are announcing a number of redundancies,” she explains. “The last thing [employees] want to do is find out by email. It takes two seconds to pick up the phone, not only to pass on good or bad news; just ask how they are.

“It’s important for line managers to realise that [the Coronavirus pandemic] is affecting people in so many different ways; loneliness, family emergencies, big changes to their finances. It comes back to being compassionate, human, everyone is going through a tricky time, it’s affecting people in different ways and [employers] really need to take the time to truly understand their employees.”

The role of line managers

A large number of employees are out of sight, but they should not be out of mind. Line managers are likely to have the most interaction with their teams, and organisations should be educating them, in the first instance, to look after their own mental health, and in the second, to spot the signs of anxiety and stress in any of their direct reports.

Eugene Farrell, chair of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association and mental health lead at Axa PPP Healthcare, says: “Training line managers to recognise signs and symptoms in themselves and others is really important, then they can refer onto various tools and share conversations and really help individuals get the long-term support that’s needed.

“There’s only so much you can pick up from emails but you can see changes of behaviour from group calls when people are not as engaged. They may have lost their sense of humour, there’s something telling in that, or they are just not there or present, or their work is late and they are making errors. They are all indications that things are slipping for that individual.”

Communication is key

With a workforce that is working to flexible hours and spread across many locations, the best ways line managers and organisations can keep-in-touch is through good communication on a personal level. “Without one-to-one video calls and listening really closely, it would be impossible to know what is going on behind closed doors,” Farrell explains.

“We have to make sure we continue all of those practices and it wasn’t just stuff we did at the beginning. As people stay at home longer there’s even more reason to make sure they are okay. Employers should be focusing on good communication more now than ever.”

Business reassurance

As well as personally tailored communications, organisations need to keep employees in the loop from a business perspective. Some employees might be feeling anxious because they simply do not know what is happening within their organisation. Keeping staff well-informed through mediums such as town halls can go a long way to quashing any fears of the unknown.

“Leadership is important,” adds Farrell. “Organisations need to keep talking to the whole community so people can ask questions like ‘where are we going?’ and organisations need to be open about the strategies they are adopting . However, it’s really important it’s not dictated, it’s a consultation.”

Long-term digital solutions

Where communication is key to temperature gauge how employees are feeling and alleviate any concerns, digital wellbeing and resilience platforms, as well as other digital tools, can be a lifeline in providing the necessary support employees need.

Nick Earley, head of psychology at healthcare provider Healix, says: “People need to have access to information and tools so they can recognise early on preventative ways. Prior to the pandemic, a lot of employers just focused on employee assistance programmes (EAPs) which is more of a reactive response when a problem arises. but I think it’s incredibly important to put preventative measures in place.

“Employees going back to work need clear communication, support structures and team catch-ups. Employees continuing to work from home need support systems like buddying-up with another employee; having someone to talk to; [employees should] keep having afternoon catch-ups and virtual coffees.

“It’s difficult not working in the physical space and it’s very much uncharted territory but we need to get good guidance out there for everybody.”

Embracing the new normal

For some employees, the fear of what the new normal really means might be making them feel the pressure. For some, the fear of how hard it will be to social distance from co-workers in the office will be an issue, whereas others may feel anxious having to work from home long-term. Whatever shape the new normal comes in, employers need to be aware of the impact it can have on an employee’s mental health.

“Don’t mandate returning to work especially if the work doesn’t require someone to be in the office,” says Samuel. “That goes a long way when people are talking about their general sentiment. People may want to come back into work, an employee’s home environment isn’t always conducive to work; they want to have that human interaction and social aspect of office life, whereas others will want to stay at home because they are just too anxious about returning to work.

“In an ideal world, employees should have a choice. This can go a long way in reducing stress levels and keeping a happy workforce.”

An uncertain future

And what does the future hold? “There are no definitive answers to this,” says Farrell. “It’s still a very uncertain time and employers need to be reactive, flexible and listen to what’s happening. If we have a second or third wave, what will that look like in three months time? What impact will this have on people’s stress levels? We really don’t know. We have to take it as it comes and be open, flexible and adapt practices accordingly.”

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