Group Gordon’s Emily Bell explains why corporate America isn’t prepared for the second wave of lockdown mental health struggles.
Public health experts are predicting a “second wave” of mental health and substance abuse problems linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. But much like whatever wave of infections we’re currently in, for many people, it feels like the first wave never ended. Workers are struggling to cope not only with social isolation amid mass death, but several other overlapping crises. It’s no wonder that a survey conducted in mid-July showed that more than half of U.S. adults reported that their mental health has suffered due to COVID concerns, up from 32% in March.
Many employers have long recognized the importance of investing in employee mental health and wellness for business continuity, but few were prepared for such a dire situation as the one in which we find ourselves. Most employers are doing their best to keep operations moving as usual and maintain a positive tone in internal communications, but for people struggling with their mental health, this insistence on “business as usual” can further exacerbate feelings of isolation. When the greater part of your day is spent trying to dig out from under a mountain of depressive or anxious thoughts, it’s jarring to encounter relentless positivity. Even under ideal, pre-pandemic circumstances, employees could be extremely reluctant to open up about mental health struggles due to the stigma and fear of retaliation. It’s no surprise, then, that unflappably positive internal communication, as official guidance on the timelines for deploying a vaccine and safety returning to offices gets murkier and more absurd, is not encouraging struggling workers to seek help.
So, concerned companies are at a bit of an impasse with respect to communicating about employee mental health – but perhaps the first step is for employers to admit that everything is not “business as usual.” Acknowledging the stress and uncertainty that we are all feeling right now demonstrates a willingness to be open and vulnerable and encourages reciprocity from employees.
However, without thoughtful, concrete actions to back them up, even the most strategic messaging is inadequate or even harmful. Show, don’t just tell, employees that they and their mental wellbeing are valued by creating new channels for anonymous feedback, accommodating people who are struggling, and offering flexible schedules.
Companies that talk a good game on employee wellness with nothing to back it up are committing a huge oversight that could come back to hurt their reputations and bottom line in a variety of ways, including talent drain and social media backlash. This problem has plagued Amazon for several years and has been especially clear amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Amazon has been the subject of a number of stories highlighting its neglect of proper social distancing guidelines and PPE distribution – at the beginning of October, it was revealed that nearly 20,000 workers had already tested positive for COVID. While the company’s ads tout its safety measures and call its team heroes, its lack of follow-through around employee health, safety, and wellness caused immense mental stress for workers already stretched to their limits and is now jeopardizing its talent pool: AWS VP Tim Bray left the company in May in protest and multiple prominent walk outs and wildcat strikes have occurred since March (most recently in Minnesota at the beginning of October). At a time when Amazon is already stretched thin due to the exponential surge in online shopping and the upcoming holiday season, its failure to align communications and policy is straining business operations.
By working to back up their messaging, employers can actually start to build the type of supportive environment that inspires employee loyalty, fosters collaboration and openness, attracts top talent, and cultivates strong client relationships. During this time when corporate hypocrisy around social causes is frequently ridiculed, companies that are willing to buck the trend of saccharine corporate optimism to keep it real with their employees stand out, both as great employers and as great clients.