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VIEW: Helping employees deal with emotional health woes in COVID-19

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What role can leaders play in helping employees to cope with mental distress in the post COVID world and beyond?

VIEW: Helping employees deal with emotional health woes in COVID-19
A favourite topic of discussion is the ever-changing and evolving role of leaders in organisations. The competency sets that leaders should possess are often up for vigorous debate and passionate arguments. But what the year 2020 has taught us so far is that there is no leadership formula that can help deal with a disruption of this massive scale.
Unpredictability coupled with the media onslaught and the sheer speed at which everything is changing can make the situation overwhelming for leaders to manage. The high degree of volatility and not knowing what to expect from one day to the next can get extremely disorienting and lead to a feeling of loss of control.
The pandemic and the resultant humanitarian crisis has created a level of apprehension amongst employees that has never been experienced by businesses. In fact, it was estimated by the Indian Psychiatric Society that there was an increase of almost 20 percent in emotional health concerns during Lockdown Phase 1 itself! This is a huge jump in numbers when we consider the fact that previous studies have revealed that 42.5 percent of employees in the private sector suffer from depression or some form of mental health issue. In fact, the World Health Organization has estimated that India will suffer about US$ 1.03 trillion of economic loss due to mental and emotional health conditions by 2030.
So what role can leaders play in helping employees to cope with mental distress in the post COVID world and beyond?
Start from the basics
Identifying key areas, issues and hazards that are a risk to the emotional health of the employees is a good place to begin. With a major change in the ‘normal’ working system, it must be ensured that everyone in the company has been engaged in the process and been provided with ways to cope with a change in the working environment, roles and responsibilities. From the base level employee to the top management, such initiatives are most effective when everyone is accounted for and taken care of.
Communicate communicate communicate
Keeping in mind the current situation, gossip and rumors are bound to do the rounds, causing increased stress and anxiety. The uncertainty of the future in the minds of the employees can be helped in only one way—by having open and honest conversations. Typically organisations start operating from a central command center to deal with all the issues in a crisis. This leads to bottlenecks. It is, therefore, extremely important to create small teams that are able to gather information about different issues and act as channels of communication across all levels of the company. This will speed up the communication with all the stakeholders and employees will be involved in the problem-solving process. Creating a collaborative environment also helps share and reduce the stress between leaders and teams.
Provide counseling sessions with professionals
Getting trained and experienced psychologists, psychotherapists or life coaches to conduct group sessions on stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness etc. can provide a safe and secure environment for employees to share their issues. From healthy ways to ease out mental pressure to spotting early signs of emotional distress in employees, these qualified professionals might be able to assist in managing the situation. Additionally, one-on-one counseling sessions and distress hotlines should be provided for those who may need greater support.
Involve your team
If any policy level review is required, involve the employees so that their opinion is considered and they feel included in driving change. Additionally, this will help them feel that they are kept updated on structural changes critical to operations. In fact, employee feedback and opinion might even provide certain insights that might have been overlooked.
Show a little flexibility
In times like these, it is essential to consider your employees’ home situation as well. A lot of people who are living away from home have been left to fend for themselves without any help for the household chores. There may also be employees who have to deal with their kids or partners/parents being home full-time and take care of them. It may be difficult to manage all their responsibilities in the set 9-5 schedule. Wherever possible, companies can encourage flexible work timings so that the employees can manage multiple responsibilities.
Have boundaries
This one goes for both employers and employees. Ideally, there should be a set number of hours in the day for which employees should be working. Considering that they’re home, managers should avoid overworking their teams while employees must not work till odd hours just to spend time. Everyone must be encouraged to log off and relax at the end of the working day, without worrying about the next email, task or deadline.
Don't let it be all about work
Coming to work, meeting friends and going out to socialize after a tough workday eases some of the pressure we face. So while everybody is at home, it is important to add some fun to their days. Have virtual celebrations for birthdays or just casual coffee chats over a video call. This will give everyone some much-needed breathing space.
—Anita Belani is Founding Partner and Leadership and Life Coach at Emotionally.in. The views expressed are personal