Employee mental health - why COVID-19’s lasting impact on tech worker wellbeing is a fresh employer duty of care

Profile picture for user catheverett By Cath Everett July 2, 2020
Summary:
The COVID-19 crisis has led to a sharp rise in mental health issues among tech workers and experts warn that the impacts are likely to last far longer than the pandemic itself unless tackled correctly.

wellness
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While there is a general shift towards re-opening corporate workplaces, the reality is that many tech workers are not looking forward to a return to the office after the COVID-19 lockdowns quite as much as you'd believe from some commentaries. Key concerns include bringing the still-present virus back into their homes from work and the health risks involved in a daily commute.

The impact of this on staff wellness can be seen around the world. In the US, a study of 1,500 people from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and Harvard Medical School finds that 55% of people feel more stressed than they were in January. Meanwhile a recent study - Mental health at the crossroads - from recruitment consultancy Harvey Nash and the ‘This Can Happen’ online workplace mental health conference, reports that the stress levels of just over a quarter of IT professionals questioned have risen as offices re-open, this at a time when 36% of them feel their mental health has already deteriorated anyway due to the crisis.

All told, the number of tech workers who say they are currently worried about their own mental health has jumped from 16% before the pandemic to more like three in five now, with 35% saying this experience is a new one for them. That sets responsible employers another challenge to add to their already too-lengthy COVID survival ‘to do’ list: supporting the mental and emotional wellbeing of the workforce at a time of extended crisis. 

Being well 

The issue is one that was raised recently by Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff in an online session hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank, when he revealed: 

One of the things that we've experienced is that 36% of our employees have been experiencing mental health challenges. Being in the home environment is not easy. Working at home is not something that we're accustomed to, it’s not something that we know how to do. For our employees, they have a lot of challenges and so we started giving them daily coaching calls. 'Hey, you're at home, talk to us. How are you doing? Are you doing some mindfulness exercises? Are you paying attention to your breathing? Are you moving? Are you exercising? Are you taking care of yourself? What is what's happening with you?'  

It’s been important to do this sort of personal development with employees to get them motivated from what Benioff calls “paralysis into participation”. It's a practice which in turn has caught the attention of customers, most of whom are likely to be facing the same situation within their own companies. According to Benioff: 

We want to get everyone into this new environment productive and successful and happy and feeling good, so we have to move them from paralysis and to participation. We created this internal call called Salesforce Be Well. All of a sudden customers are saying, 'Hey, can we listen in on that? Can we attend that? '. So many customers asked us about that, we said, 'You know what, we’re just gonna make that public'. So almost every single day, we have a Salesforce Be Well call, just to help our customers and our employees pay attention to their mental health. 

Burnout 

That’s clearly an important commitment in a climate where around one in 10 of those polled by Harvey Nash say the shadow of the pandemic is having a negative impact on their work. The worst affected are those in project/programme management or IT operational roles as they were under the most pressure to support a move to remote working when lockdown first hit, explains Chief Executive Bev White:

Tech has been at the heart of helping business do at least some kind of trade, so there’s been a lot of pressure on those shoulders, due to tight deadlines and senior people pushing for resolutions. While adrenalin carries you through initially, it becomes more difficult in some ways as things start to ease. People are tired after working long nights and weekends and often haven’t had the opportunity to take a break. But as big, well-known firms start saying they plan to lay off staff, it takes the situation to whole new levels of uncertainty, so people are not only exhausted, they’re also worried about whether they’ll be able to pay the bills in future.

Such findings are also born out by a further survey entitled Emerging Trends on the Employee Experience in Times of COVID-19, which was conducted among more than 130,000 employees of all professions around the world by leadership, culture and employee engagement consultancy, Kincentric. It found that high workloads, extended hours and changing working patterns, which included more online meetings, were all taking their toll, particularly among parents struggling to find a balance between work and family obligations. As a result, the study concludes: 

Burnout is a significant risk as we enter the next phases of the health and economic crisis with prolonged stress, volatility, anxiety and uncertainty

Sarah Lockhart, Principal Consultant for Health and Wellbeing at health insurance provider Mercer Marsh Benefits, agrees:

Burnout is caused by a lack of control over the ability to influence your working environment. Uncertainty creates anxiety, so we try to control the things we can, which includes work to some degree. This means it’s easy for employees to loose boundaries over working hours. Similarly, our physical and psychological needs may be neglected as they may not be seen as a priority. The situation is likely to become more serious the longer the pandemic goes on for as the period of uncertainty people are enduring will just be extended.

To make matters worse, a third report, called The Future of Workplace from commercial real-estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield, also reveals that, despite some positive effects of home working, such as high levels of personal productivity, the situation has had a negative impact on employees’ sense of personal connection with each other. That's an important point to bear in mind when many employers, tech and otherwise, expect working from home to become the norm or at least a long-term practice for many of their staff.

The core problem here is that personal connection is “an extremely important component of employee experience under any circumstances, and even more so in the current environment”, the report says. Not only do face-to-face interactions help with personal bonding, they also contribute to how connected an individual feels to the company itself. 

But this feeling of connection to corporate culture has now plummeted, which is itself another cause of burnout. Amber Coster, Chief Executive at company culture consultancy Balpro, points out: 

The risk of burnout increases when you feel less connected to workplace values…That disconnection damages motivation and leaves us feeling low and fatigued, which can have a significant cost to business as well as our health and wellbeing.

Against that backdrop, communication is a crucial tool. In another health-related initiative, Salesforce’s Benioff now does an all hands call each Wednesday with all staff around the world with the specific goal of, as he puts it, over-communicating: 

I haven't done that since we were a start-up. Now we're 21 years old, we're 52,000 employees, we'll do $20 billion in revenue this year…it’s been a long time since I did an all hands call on a regular basis. It's what we used to do as a start-up, but now every Wednesday we're having to communicate to our employees. Why would we do that? Because we're in a world where we not only have to take care of ourselves mentally, we also need to over-communicate.

Dealing with long-term mental health impacts

Given all the uncertainties about the future of the pandemic, there inevitably remains the risk that it is likely to make itself felt in terms of mental as much as physical health terms for some considerable time to come. But while there is much general discussion of the subject and awareness of the situation among employers is high, Coster believes that action and commitment  to tackle this are still lagging in too many cases:

For many companies, their goal is to simply try to keep as many people employed as they can. They see ‘keeping the lights on’ as the most critical thing to people’s wellbeing, which is very easy to rationalise. However, it’s not a long-term strategy. Not investing in people’s mental health means that productivity will decline and presentee-ism (AKA working while sick) - will increase, damaging the company’s bottom line and consequently leading to the very staff layoffs they were trying so hard to avoid on day one.

This means that simply sending employees a PDF or YouTube video with generalized tips on how to look after their mental health or scripting a reassuring letter from the CEO stating that their employees health and wellbeing are management's top concern, simply will not cut it as a corporate strategy. Instead the response needs to be about creating a culture, modelled by the senior leadership team, which enables workers to feel safe enough to ask for support and help if they require it. 

On the one hand, this involves leaders displaying empathy and compassion to their workforce through thoughtful communication and action. It likewise entails a joint re-examination of the company’s values to help employees reconnect and rediscover purpose if it feels lacking.

On the other hand, it is also about empowering middle managers to take appropriate action if needs be. Mike Blake, UK Wellbeing Lead at risk management consultancy Willis Towers Watson, explains:

As ever, these things have to come from the top, and there has to be a recognition that line managers and team leaders must be given the authority to be proactive. So if a staff member comes to them and says ‘I’ve had a bereavement due to COVID-19 and need time off work’, managers have to be in a position to make a decision at that point rather than say ‘I’ll have to check on that and get back to you’. Empowerment can’t just be lip service. You can have the most empathetic manager in the world, but unless they have the authority to do something, it’s just humoring people.

Another important consideration is providing managers with appropriate mental health and resilience training in order to help both others and themselves more effectively. Just as vital is enabling access to a range of support services, such as mental health first aiders and employee assistance programmes. 

Biting the bullet now, despite the difficult economic climate for many, is particularly important, argues Coster, as “turbulence and volatility” are likely to remain a fact of life for the foreseeable future, a situation that could “trigger further trauma and lead to a further decline in mental health unless purposeful, considered intervention is taken by employers”.

Lockhart agrees:

There’s a lot of evidence that a pandemic, such as COVID-19, can cause fear, panic and anxiety, so support for mental health needs to be taken extremely seriously. There are enormous longer-term consequences and there’s evidence to show that the mental health impacts of COVID-19 are likely to last far longer than the pandemic itself.

My take

If employers are to weather the economic storm ahead, it is vital they invest in ensuring their workforce is as resilient as possible because if the workforce is resilient, the business itself will be resilient too. And as the return to the workplace gets underway and trust and confidence levels on the part of employees have to be factored into that planning, employers have a responsibility and duty of care that needs to be embraced.