Returning to work: Prioritizing mental health

By April D. Gjoka, CPA, and Wuraola Oladokun

With the United States leading the world in confirmed coronavirus-related cases and deaths, the effects of the global crisis persist. Businesses including mom-and-pop shops, hotels, restaurants, schools, airlines, and professional service firms are faced with the same questions — how to continue business operations, how to keep people safe, and what will the environment look like after the pandemic finally ends.

The unknown has sparked fear in many, while also igniting skepticism in others. Protecting family, work/life balance, and mental health has been difficult, as many fortunate to remain employed are juggling home life, work responsibilities, and the impact of a global pandemic all in the same space.

The pandemic has tested the way we work and live. As states loosen restrictions and small businesses and individuals begin to resume social engagement, one of the questions being asked is, "When will the rest of us go back to work or the office, and what will it look like?" While some feel excited at the prospect of returning to business as usual, others are apprehensive, and some are left unsure of how to feel. When employees do return to work, whatever that looks like, it is imperative that leaders are sensitive to and aware of the psychological well-being of all employees. How do employers make the shift to prioritize the mental well-being of employees and create an environment of psychological well-being, while still meeting desired business outcomes? Consider the following:

Acknowledge the transition's challenges: For months, many employers have required employees to work from home. Employees also have been supporting their children in online schooling, providing care to parents, limiting social contacts, wearing masks, and being cautious and aware of keeping themselves and their families healthy. When employees are asked to come back to work or the office, employers need to be mindful of the mental health challenges that will go along with this transition. Fear, depression, anger, and anxiety are all real consequences of the pandemic coupled with months of lockdown. Employers must listen to employees' concerns and be prepared to address them, providing access to mental health resources when necessary.

Offer flexible schedules: Employees have different life scenarios that affect their feelings about returning to work. For instance, an employee who is uncomfortable sending his or her child back to day care or an employee living with a family member with health conditions that increase their risk of serious harm from the coronavirus might feel increased anxiety and wish to continue to work from home. It is important to encourage discussions with employees around taking advantage of flexible schedules if needed. Work with each employee on an individual plan for the transition back to work.

Embrace a culture of self-care: Self-care is about purposefully engaging in an activity to care for mental, physical, and emotional well-being. When lives become overwhelming and busy, it is easy to lose sight of making self-care a priority. As employees continue to work through the pandemic, open dialogue on the importance of self-care is vital. Create a culture within your company that encourages self-care and overall wellness. Facilitate discussions on self-care and hold open forums, use communication outlets to share tips and resources, and encourage employees to have transparent and supportive conversations with colleagues. This will help normalize self-care and prevent burnout as employees make the transition back to work.

Consider mental health days: Some companies are offering employees one day a month as a mental health day. Others have begun allowing employees to "tap in and tap out" during working hours if they need an hour or so to gather their thoughts, take a walk, or step away. In a time of so much change and uncertainty, it is important to remind teams to take time for themselves and their families. If specific mental health policies do not exist in your organization, creating an environment that supports using vacation days for mental health needs can improve the psychological well-being and wellness of your employees.

Provide manager support training: During change and transition, some employees feel most comfortable receiving support and messaging from direct supervisors. As such, training for managers and supervisors to discuss how to care for teams during this transition can be a valuable tool for employers to implement. Consider providing tips on detecting mental health concerns and talking with employees about their challenges, and providing managers and supervisors with tools and resources to make available to employees.

Keep a pulse on team members: As the full impact of the pandemic and the future workings of social life and business are still being defined, stay connected, empathize with employees and teams, and continue to show support as needs shift. Remain flexible and create a safe platform to discuss issues openly as a team. Consider feedback loops such as surveys to gauge how employees are doing and feeling and to identify opportunities for improvement to business operations. This will enable continual reassessment of the work environment from the perspective of the employee and provide ongoing opportunities for companies to keep employees engaged and empowered.

It's critical to create a program that helps employees feel safe and cared for as organizations make the transition back to work amid many unknowns. Even though we all have been impacted by COVID-19, each individual's situation is different. The transition back to work may be positive for some and negative for others. Work closely with your teams to determine what your organization's future will look like, and remain agile to adapt new policies if necessary. Continue to create an environment of productivity, empowerment, and health. Embrace an employee-first mindset, which will help you create a workplace that promotes psychological well-being during these unprecedented times.

For more news and reporting on the coronavirus and how CPAs can handle challenges related to the outbreak, visit the JofA's coronavirus resources page.

April D. Gjoka is a manager and Wuraola Oladokun is a senior associate on the Business Change Enablement team at Grant Thornton LLP. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Ken Tysiac, the JofA's editorial director, at Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com.

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