Dr. Vikram Vora is a Medical Director with the India consulting team, based at the International SOS offices in India. He is also a pandemic health consulting expert with more than 22 years of experience in the private sector. His expertise in corporate healthcare spans pandemic planning, corporate clinics, disease outbreaks, infectious diseases, risk, and crisis management.
In these difficult times, it is vital that businesses address the issue of mental health head-on, developing a sophisticated mental wellness strategy to fulfil the duty of care responsibilities and help employees with their mental health resilience. Beyond the obvious positives implementing these strategies would have for employees, businesses have a direct interest in investing in creating a mental wellness program; according to data from International SOS’ recent Risk Outlook 2021, 1 in 3 risk professionals believe that mental health issues will contribute significantly to declining productivity levels this year. A business that supports employees appropriately will therefore likely be in a better, more productive place than one that does not.
Any discussion on mental wellbeing in the “New Normal” needs to begin with a universal understanding of what the term exactly means. Is it the WFH that employees had been suddenly thrust into in March 2020? OR is it the Return to Office that is now being permitted by State Governments (even up to 100% of employees in office)? OR is it the middle ground that organizations seem to be adopting – that of a hybrid work environment where employees spend only a few days in the office each week while continuing to WFH on other days?
For now, the changing definition of New Normal seems to rest at this Hybrid Work Model. A survey done by the BBC in UK showed that 55% of employees preferred hybrid working as it seemed the best way forward.
Working from home was a big change for many people in both positive and negative ways. It brought a sense of loneliness for those who liked working at the office, and contrastingly, a sense of comfort for those who struggled with social anxiety at work.
People thrive on working based on a routine, and once that routine gets disrupted it can cause a lot of distress for some individuals. It is said that any habit takes 3 weeks to form – with 550-plus days of WFH, changing the status quo suddenly is likely to lead to employees feeling anxious and scrambling to set up alternate arrangements to manage the work-life situation. From worries about re-engaging help to look after children and elder parents (at a time when vaccination rates, through growing are not optimal) to fear for their own safety during commuting, while at the office or cafeteria and bringing home the dreaded virus as a consequence, many are reporting increased levels of stress.
Work-related travel is another area of concern for employees – from the fear of contracting an infection while travelling to the fear of sudden border closures, changing entry requirements, hotel/institutional quarantine in a different country, new variants in the countries of travel etc.
Many employees may have already suffered from COVID-19 and may be among those sufferers who experience symptoms well beyond the usual 4 weeks – the dreaded LONG-COVID – with easy fatiguability, body aches, lethargy & confusion (Brain Fog), decreased appetite, insomnia and resulting depression.
The signs may already be there for smart managers to see – employees working late hours, answering emails after work hours and even while on leave to show their constant connectivity to work despite being away from the office (leading to fatigue and burnouts), suddenly no longer switching on their webcams to remain inconspicuous and fly under the radar (avoidance). Some employees could worry about being sidelined if they choose to continue WFH while their colleagues return to the office (alienation).
A tremendous amount of resulting unseen and unrecognized stress exists on account of the pandemic and its resulting effect on work. A recent study by a leading professional social networking site showed that 1 in 3 professionals in India was feeling the effects of burnout. It is well known that global events have the ability to cause long term health effects, especially psychological. The 9/11 attacks happened in 2001 and yet, in 2015, a study involving 36000 New Yorkers found that 15% continued to suffer from depression and 14% had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Today, many employees are having to deal with the mental, social and physical aftermath of COVID-19 and employers will need to manage employees who may have had COVID-19, may have lost dear ones or may have had serious side effects due to the virus.
To foster business productivity and fulfil Duty of Care in a sustained way, organisations need to also understand how they can protect the mental health and physical wellbeing of their employees
- Adequate training in recognizing the signs and symptoms of work-related anxiety needs to be imparted to all people managers
- Ensuring the availability of support services for employees who appear to be in distress
- Reassurance to employees that their health and wellbeing is paramount – demonstration of an organization’s commitment by way of having a robust Return-To-Office plan with screening protocols, workplace zoning, distancing, masking, sanitizing precautions will go a long way
- Having a plan to manage someone found symptomatic / COVOD-19 positive at work is essential
- Limiting travel to absolutely essential travel with adequate time provided for rest and exercise would help as would training on handling travel-related stress
- An open channel of communication between employees and managers will bring forth concerns that need to and can be addressed
The human mind finds comfort in routine. Disruption of routine causes uncertainty. The fear of COVID-19 is real. Fear and uncertainty fuel anxiety. The only way organizations can get their employee populations to adapt to and manage change is to develop organisational resilience that percolates into each and every employee. This will ensure business continuity and continued productivity to help individuals and organizations emerge successful in the face of the challenging odds that the pandemic has wrought upon the world.