6 minute read 29 Jul 2020
Social distancing business people woking outdoors

How COVID-19 reshapes the mental health needs of workers

By

Pamela Spence

EY Global Health Sciences and Wellness Industry Leader and Life Sciences Industry Leader

Ambassador for outcomes-based performance and healthy aging. Advocate for women.

6 minute read 29 Jul 2020

As stressors linked to COVID-19 rise, employers that prioritize their workers’ mental health will gain an edge in the fight for top talent.

Employers around the world are wrestling with the issue of how to safely welcome their employees back to the office. This is a major challenge since the COVID-19 pandemic requires organizations to significantly adjust their operations to prioritize human wellness. As they do so, they must reimagine the concept of work.

Clearly, a safe physical environment is essential if employees are to feel confident about returning to the workplace. In the absence of a therapy or vaccine for COVID-19, organizations must do as much as possible to safeguard their staff from exposure to the virus. 

At a minimum, employers will have to create new protocols linked to the maintenance and utilization of the physical space, including regularly schedule deep cleanings of the premises and rearrangement of office furniture to promote physical distancing. Employees will be required to embrace new behaviors too, including routine wearing of face masks and regular temperature checks. 

Results from the EY Future Consumer Index reinforce how important it is for employers to rethink communal spaces to make their workers feel safe. Of the nearly 13,000 consumers surveyed in 13 countries, 37% indicated it would be months or years before normality returned to the work environment, with 64% indicating they are more cautious of their physical health. Indeed, over two-thirds of people (57%) noted they would be extremely uncomfortable or uncomfortable using public transport because of the potential for COVID-19 exposure.

This increased desire to safeguard health required grocery stores and pharmacies, which largely remained open during the pandemic, to find new solutions. Leading companies installed barriers at check-out stands to shield cashiers, created one-way routes within stores, and limited the overall number of shoppers at any one time.

By controlling the movement of people and limiting casual contact, these steps not only limited the spread of COVID-19, but helped the retailers build trust with the public. It’s no accident that many of the steps employers in the non-retail setting are now implementing mirror those undertaken by these essential businesses.

Yet, physical health is not the only component of wellbeing — mental health is key as well. Prior to the advent of COVID-19, mental health was already a pressing, if largely unacknowledged, workplace issue. Research by a software provider suggests that 94% of US and UK workers feel stressed at work, with almost a third saying that their stress levels are high to unsustainably high.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further elevated the importance of mental health. During the crisis, people have struggled with grief at the loss of a loved one, isolation and loneliness, general anxiety about the future, and overload caused by working long hours or juggling work with other commitments such as childcare. They may also have worried about losing their jobs. 

Workplace wellbeing

94%

of US and UK workers feel stressed at work, with almost a third saying that their stress levels are high to unsustainably high.

A survey by Qualtrics in April 2020 found that 44.4% of newly remote workers said their mental health had declined since the outbreak of the pandemic. Results from the Future Consumer Index echo these findings: 83% of respondents cited a decline in productivity due to working from home.

Returning to the office won’t necessarily boost the mental health of all employees if there are concerns about physical health.

In fact, worries about possible COVID-19 exposure could make an already anxious work force even more apprehensive. According to the World Health Organization, two of the biggest contributors to increased workplace anxiety are inadequate health and safety policies and poor communication and management practices.  

Remote workers’ wellbeing

44.4%

of newly remote workers said their mental health had declined since the outbreak of the pandemic.

To retain the best and brightest talent, and build trust with their workers, employers need to embed mental wellness support in their return-to-work programs and clearly communicate the steps they will take to keep workers safe. Two key steps are required to reinforce employees’ resilience in the post-pandemic world. They are:

  1. Expansion of mental wellness benefits to ensure support for individuals who require them, or who are at greatest risk of suffering poor mental health in future.
  2. Reorganization of the physical workspace and introduction of behavioral changes to make employees feel safer.

Here, technological solutions can play a key role. For example, collaboration platforms can be used as an alternative to face-to-face meetings, contactless technology can be adopted in workplace canteens, and staff can be developed using virtual training tools rather than in classroom settings. Potentially, sensors can be used to track people’s movements and monitor social distancing.

Employees may even be prepared to share their data via contact tracing apps if doing this keeps them physically well and enables their organization to continue operating in the event of another outbreak. Based on the Future Consumer Index results, nearly 56% of individuals will share their personal data if it helps with disease prevention.

But to maintain trust with workers, employers should make sure their employees retain control of this data. The employees, not the employers, must be the ones to decide who has access to their personal data when — and under what conditions. That means if employers use contract tracing apps developed by third parties, employee representatives need to be involved in vetting those app developers. Irresponsible handling of data is one of the fastest ways to lose consumer trust and currently more than a third of consumers EY surveyed completely trust technology providers to handle their personal data appropriately.

In addition to making the physical environment safer, technology can help to build strong mental health. Employers can make a number of solutions available to their employees, including mindfulness apps, chatbots and telehealth visits with mental health providers. These technological solutions can be complemented by more liberal sick leave and vacation policies, as well as feedback mechanisms that enable employers to listen to employee concerns and use data to respond quickly and appropriately.

Many employees — especially those who have felt isolated during the pandemic — will happily return to their workplaces, provided they believe it’s safe to do so. Others will want to keep working from home. To compete for talent effectively, organizations should provide flexible policies that support longer-term shifts in working practices.

These policies should also acknowledge that, in future, the whole notion of ‘going into the office’ is likely to become more intentional. People will congregate in shared workspaces for specific activities such as networking or brainstorming, which may be less effective when performed remotely. 

The health and safety of employees is critical to long-term value creation. Employers that fail to invest in their people’s wellbeing will struggle to retain their most productive staffers and fall behind to rivals. So, as organizations reframe their future, they must consider how they can reinforce both the physical and mental wellbeing of their workforce. They must also empower employees to be fully present during what is likely to be an extended period of both disruption and opportunity. 

Summary

One of the biggest challenges for companies is to guarantee that their employees can safely return to the office environment post the COVID-19 pandemic. Employers that prioritize human wellness, both physical and mental, will gain a significant competitive advantage in terms of talent retention and long-term value creation.

About this article

By

Pamela Spence

EY Global Health Sciences and Wellness Industry Leader and Life Sciences Industry Leader

Ambassador for outcomes-based performance and healthy aging. Advocate for women.