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Aug 19, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

As we move further and further into the COVID-19 pandemic, mental strain is certainly piling up. With so much uncertainty, it’s no secret that workers have a lot to worry about. As a result, companies across the world are taking steps to put employees at ease.

But are companies actually addressing employees’ mental health? Or are they simply creating the perception that they’re addressing employees’ mental health?

What Are Companies Doing?

HR departments know they have a duty to look after the wellbeing of their people. The good news is we’re seeing a lot of businesses take great strides in helping employees cope with mental health problems. 

For instance, many employers that require workers to be physically present — restaurants, grocery stores, convenient stores, etc. — are hiring contact tracers to help make their workplaces safer, as well as calm anxiety. Meanwhile, companies like Chevron, Financial Times, and Culligan Water are partnering with highly-touted mental-health organizations to develop customized programs for their employees. Of course, they have the massive budgets and cash reserves to do so. 

Most small-to-midsize businesses are forced to take other approaches to address mental wellness. They’re doing virtual happy hours, virtual team-building, virtual wellbeing check-ins, virtual stress-management activities, and virtual you-name-it. Basically, they’re using tactics that are both affordable and doable in a time when revenue streams are cloudier than ever. 

But here’s the issue: More than half of companies do not have adequate resources to support mental health. This begs the question: How effective are these approaches in combating pandemic-induced mental-health problems?

Are Efforts Making a Real Difference? 

I believe that most companies, big and small, genuinely care about the wellbeing of their employees and that their hearts are in the right place. After all, by now everyone knows how important mental health is. The stigma around it is shifting in a very good way. And no one wants their workers to experience a breakdown or worse while they’re on the clock, or away from work. 

But I do not believe that virtual happy hours, team-building events, or weekly Zoom check-ins with managers, HR representatives, or even CEOs are making a substantial dent in combating mental health issues during COVID-19. 

First of all, burnout from Zoom, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, Houseparty, etc., is real, very real. And I’m not the only person who thinks so. Experts believe that video chats, especially ones with larger groups, actually contribute to anxiety. 

According to licensed psychotherapist and psychoanalyst Babita Spinelli:

“The very nature of video chat gives us more to be anxious about. First and foremost, they make us very aware of the way we look. It’s like looking at yourself in a mirror the entire time you’re socializing. For anyone with a little bit of social anxiety to begin with, this pressure to perform and constantly overthinking oneself is exhausting.”  

This phenomenon can be even worse on video calls with more people. Spinelli continues:

“Video hangouts with big groups of people are tiring because they cause cognitive overload. Unlike being in person, we’re much more aware of what is happening with each person on the video call. We don’t realize it, but our brains essentially go into overdrive trying to pick up on social cues from every person on the screen.” 

Additionally, the simple fact that people are in a virtual socializing event is a stark reminder they are living in a pandemic — and all the stress it carries. 

Secondly, unless you work in a psychiatric clinic, your managers and HR staff are not qualified to provide mental-health counseling to employees who may be on the brink of a meltdown. So just how meaningful can these wellbeing check-ins actually be? 

Moreover, how comfortable are employees discussing mental health issues with managers? 

According to Mental Health in the Workplace, more than half of employees claimed they were not comfortable bringing up mental-health issues to their managers. This could be for many reasons:

  • They’re afraid they’ll appear “weak” to a direct superior.
  • They are worried it might affect their job security.
  • They don’t trust their manager.
  • They believe there’s a stigma tied to mental health.

All of which underscores the argument that many companies are simply creating the perception of addressing mental health during COVID-19, rather than meaningfully confronting the issue. 

Nonetheless, is it really up to employers and managers to step into the trenches and combat the coronavirus-induced mental health crisis? 

What Responsibility Do Companies Bear?

Say on a wellbeing check in, an employee tells a manager they are feeling depressed and suicidal. The employee also explains that they are struggling to manage their workload under the constant uncertainty tied to the pandemic. 

By default, a manager’s responsibility is to deal with issues tied to performance. Obviously, mental health and job performance go hand-in-hand, but is it a manager’s responsibility to counsel an employee with pandemic-induced anxiety? What about an employee experiencing depression? What if they are on the brink of suicide?

What more can a manager really and meaningfully do beyond telling the worker to seek professional help? In other words, where is the line?

To reiterate, companies absolutely have a duty to protect their workers, both physically and mentally. HR departments exist in part to ensure the workplace is safe, non-toxic, and suitable for everyone to do their job.

The problem these days is that companies have significantly less control over their workplaces, especially ones that are now completely remote. 

In non-pandemic times, the problems that create an undesirable work environment are typically unique to each company. For instance, office politics, unrealistic expectations, dangerous working conditions, and other issues all exist within the confines of individual workplaces — and can be resolved as such. 

For example, say that same employee was feeling depressed and suicidal because office politicking was compromising their well-being. In this scenario, the manager and HR department are responsible to mitigate this problem. 

The difference with coronavirus-induced mental-health issues is that most are byproducts of the exact same problems across entire workplaces and entire industries. These include lack of new leads, mass layoffs, new regulations, intensified work/life struggles, and a widespread sense of uncertainty.

These are problems that nearly all companies are facing but have virtually zero control over. In other words, the mental-health issues stemming from these problems are primarily rooted in the pandemic, not the organization. 

Employers are obligated to provide employees with the tools, processes, and resources to manage their new work situations. However, we must consider just how much responsibility we are laying on the shoulders of managers and HR departments.  

This is not to say that companies deserve a license to do nothing while employees drown in mental despair. Companies can and should do everything in their power to help workers cope with pandemic-induced issues. This includes:

  • Making sure work environments are completely safe and compliant.
  • Using contact tracers to ease the fear of contracting COVID-19.
  • Critically understanding the situation each employee has been thrust into.
  • Restructuring health care plans for easier access to psychology professionals.
  • Providing mental-health resources.
  • Offering financial assistance for counseling sessions.
  • Keeping a keen eye out for red flags of mental deterioration.
  • Offering more flexible PTO.

I’m not opposed to happy hours and stress-management activities and the other actions I mentioned earlier — I just don’t believe they should be tools to address pandemic-induced mental health. Plus, relying on such “solutions” is ineffective and risky as it puts problems into the hands of HR professionals and managers untrained to deal with them. In other words, you can provide virtual happy hours and team-building events, but unless you are also taking more meaningful steps like the kind I just mentioned, you’re not truly addressing problems. 

Put otherwise, wellbeing check-ins are fine. But they are not a strategy. It’s what happens outside of those check-ins that matters most (financial assistance for counseling, safe environments, etc.).

Again, mental issues induced by COVID-19 are widespread. You are qualified to help, not solve. Your duty as a company or HR department is to provide employees with the means to help themselves

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.