With the holiday season upon us, the physical and mental toll of social distancing, wearing a mask, and working from home for the last nine months is adding up.
“It’s like 1918, 1929, and 1968 have hit us in less than nine months," said Maureen Solero, Vice President of Organization and Leadership Development of Nuvance Health, at a recent session I held on wellness in the workplace, hosted by WW, formerly Weight Watchers.
The prolonged stress of the pandemic and multiple lockdowns is taking its toll, and this stress trickles down to our work lives as well. As the pandemic goes on, managers should realize that good wellness practices, including mental health, are a marathon and not a sprint—there’s not a quick fix. But there are ways to help.
After chatting with multiple execs and health and wellness specialists about ways to ensure mental wellness in ourselves and our teams, I’ve realized there are best practices and benefits that we need to provide to help our teams get through this immensely tough time. I want to share those with you.
There are really two tidal waves hitting us right now: we've gained a number of stressors across almost all dimensions of our lives—job security and financial anxiety, racial injustice and political stress, continued child care issues, meeting fatigue, and isolation angst—while at the same time, we've lost all of our coping strategies because our routines have been upended.
Even before the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 264 million people globally suffer from depression, with many of them also suffering from anxiety. In 2019, a WHO-led study estimated that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $1 trillion every year in lost productivity.
“When you're distracted by anxious thoughts and stress, when you're slowed down by depression, or you haven't gotten high-quality sleep, it's going to be really hard for somebody to be as productive as they would be under healthier conditions,” says Megan Jones Bell, Chief Science Officer of Headspace.
When the pandemic hit and many offices closed in mid-March, managers and employees quickly felt underwater. In an April survey by mental health provider Ginger, nearly seven in 10 employees indicated that the COVID-19 pandemic is the most stressful time of their entire professional career, 88 percent of workers reported experiencing moderate to extreme stress at that time, and 62 percent of workers reported losing at least one hour a day in productivity due to COVID-19 related stress, with 32 percent losing more than two hours per day.
As we’re dealing with a prolonged pandemic and work-from-home environment, it’s the right time to examine what systems and resources we have in place for more sustainable mental wellness.
“Two principal things changed during the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Gary Foster, Chief Scientific Officer at WW. “One was a disruption of daily routines and the other was a sense of social isolation.”
Food, activity, mindset and sleep are the core pillars of WW's science-backed program. They know members are paying attention to their mindset and are looking for behavioral strategies that can help address the unique struggles to a weight loss journey, as well as ways to stay positive during uncertain times like these.
"Mindset—the way that you think about the journey and yourself—is the foundation for developing healthy behaviors that can become healthy habits and is a central part of the WW program,” says Foster. “The science is clear that a helpful mindset is important for weight loss and overall wellness and can help you make behavior changes that are sustainable and improve overall health and wellness. Practicing gratitude and self-care techniques can also help overcome setbacks.”
Dr. Paula Wilbourne, co-founder and Chief Science Office of Sibly, a virtual coaching service, shared with me that coping with the pandemic, work-life balance, social isolation, and having increased contact with people at home are the most-talked about subjects between members and coaches right now.
At this point, what might normally be a small blip of stress (an unannounced meeting, for example) can feel like something larger. “Those small things are deepening past the frustration of today to become chronic stressors that are taking more of an emotional toll on all of us,” adds Dr. Wilbourne. “So anybody can run a sprint, but we're trying to run a marathon now at a sprint pace. People are depleting their reserves.”
Mental wellness is essential to overcoming the three F’s: fractured, fatigue, and frustration, which slow down our productivity. Mental wellness is also proven to be interwoven with physical wellness, ensuring preventative care. But aside from lowering healthcare costs and having employees that are sick less often, mentally healthy employees are often more resilient, which also leads to increased productivity.
CEO and President of Headspace meditation app CeCe Morken sees a huge advantage in employee attitudes as well. “I think the biggest benefit is the employee sentiment and their engagement. They're not missing work as much and they have a positive attitude,” says Morken. “I think those are the benefits that go well beyond reduced healthcare costs.”
The importance of mental wellness during times of prolonged high stress is clear, but what exactly is mental wellness anyway?
Clinical psychologist Dr. Sera Lavelle of NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy defines mental wellness as when a person isn't debilitated by a specific stress or anxiety. “When a person is mentally well, their anxiety or stress is no longer impeding their ability to function,” says Dr. Lavelle. So while it’s impossible to remove all the stressors in our lives, the best way to keep functioning is to ensure we—and our employees—are mentally well enough to deal with life’s anxieties, even at month nine of a pandemic.
So how can we achieve mental wellness among our staff? Here are seven tools to foster and provide mental wellness in the workplace.
1. Meditation and Mindfulness
At this point it’s well-proven that meditation and mindfulness can help ease stress and anxiety, as well as improve focus and increase resiliency. “But that’s only half of the story,” says Jones Bell of Headspace. “The other half is performance enhancement, which is associated with meditation. Meditation enhances focus and reduces mind wandering.”
There are now several digital platforms that offer easy access to those tools. Headspace and Calm are the two largest, with both apps seeing a major increase in downloads during the pandemic and more and more companies signing on to offer access to one or both as a benefit to employees, including Starbucks, Unilever, HP, GE, 3M, PwC, Kraft Heinz, and Farmers Insurance Group. It’s also why brands focused on physical fitness have started to integrate these apps into their offerings as well, with Gympass members being eligible for a free 3-month Calm subscription and WW offering Headspace to its members as part of its effort to offer a more holistic approach to health.
And of course, apps aren’t the only way to encourage mindfulness right now. Group meditation online or in person, even a moment of mindfulness, or breathing exercises at the start of a meeting can be extremely beneficial in terms of calming nerves and setting the right tone—and displaying that the C-Suite cares about mental health.
2. Counseling and Therapy
A cornerstone of mental health will always be therapy. Companies that make it easy for their employers to access therapy—ideally free or low-cost—reap the benefits of mentally well, productive staff. While insurance coverage for therapy should be a given, it’s important to destigmatize therapy and counseling and ensure that staff is not shamed for using it. The digital space has also embraced counseling, with virtual therapy more popular than ever. Apps like Ginger, Sibly, and Talkspace, provide various types of therapy and coaching on-demand and by appointment, and are part of the benefits package for employees at Pinterest, Stitch Fix, Sephora, Zynga, Cleary Gottlieb, and more.
Lyra Health, which is used by Starbucks and eBay, has an even more robust platform, offering a complete mental wellness suite of products, including self-care tools, mental health coaching, evidence-based therapy, medication management, critical incident support, manager training, onsite therapy, and work-life services.
“Because we are all at home right now, digital tools are uniquely positioned to serve the needs of folks who can't go someplace in person,” says Dr. Wilbourne of Sibly.
Interior Architects (IA), a global architecture and design firm, started providing Ginger to its employees in March, at the start of the pandemic. “Having a strong support system is imperative to ensure that our minds stay healthy and nourished, and offering various avenues (both on-demand counseling and regular sessions once a month) to get that support help us meet our employees’ and their families individualized needs,” says IA Director of Human Resources Brenda Plechaty. “We have seen significant engagement with our counseling program, and heard positive feedback from employees – they appreciate having these enhanced options that support them (and their families) not only during times of crises, but for the future.”
And sometimes, a more unofficial type of conversation also helps. While we don’t have the water cooler right now, we do have apps like Yammer, which facilitate group conversation outside of work topics.
At our Go Forward to Work wellness focus group hosted by WW, Bill Martin, CIO of AEG, shared that his company has started offering listening sessions around various topics, including racial justice. Aside from speaking with licensed therapists and psychologists, being able to talk openly and comfortably about what’s causing us anxiety can go a long way. Offering listening sessions and panel discussions around important issues of our time that cause anxiety, like racial injustice, climate change, and the election, can encourage employees to feel at ease discussing their anxieties and foster an empathetic environment at the office, even if it’s virtual.
3. Resilience Training
As I’ve discussed before, resiliency is so important for an entire staff, from the C-Suite to managers to lower-level employees. But how do companies increase resiliency in their staff, especially during times of extreme stress? One way is by offering Happify Health, a digital platform that claims to decrease anxiety and depression and increase resilience by 20%. It’s currently part of the benefits package at companies including IA, Humana, and Cigna. The platform offers its users more than 60 four-week long training tracks targeting various mental health issues—for example, one is called Beat Burnout & Build Resilience. There’s also more than 3,000 science-backed activities and games, guided meditations, and community capabilities to encourage connection and support, all designed to reduce stress and enhance resilience.
Beyond an app, TRACOM Group, whose services have been used by ExxonMobile, ETrade Financial, and McDonald’s, offers corporate resilience training in order to revitalize teams. They offer resilience assessments and training, and even have resilience instructor certification so organizations can have someone qualified in-house, all the time.
HR consulting firm LHH provides solutions for resilience via formal coaching for employees. Also available virtually on their EZRA app, coaching allows managers and others to seek advice, support, and an improved skill set allowing for more resilience overall.
4.Management Training for Supporting Mental Health
To attain a solid backbone of mental wellness, management needs to be on board. We can’t cut corners on training the upper levels to understand the causes of anxiety, stress, and depression; learn how to recognize symptoms in employees; and discover solutions to combat these issues in order to increase overall wellness and satisfaction in their teams.
For example, ID360, who has coached and trained individuals and teams at companies including Marriott, Microsoft, and American Airlines, offers customized managerial training programs including one around best behaviors regarding mental wellness in the workplace. Mind Share Partners focuses entirely on wellness in the workplace and offers various types of sessions and training. Tech company New Relic did a manager training series with Mind Share on how to support mental wellness in the workplace. After the training, 92 percent of the managers reported feeling more comfortable talking about mental health at work. They also reported having a better understanding of how to create a mentally healthy work culture and of how to support a struggling employee. Just before the pandemic hit in February 2020, Verizon Media worked with Mind Share on an executive session with Verizon Media’s CEO Guru Gowrappan, the executive team, and an extended leadership team. On March 24, Gowrappan tweeted about the session, “It was an incredible workshop about how to cultivate and facilitate a culture of openness, honesty and transparency to destigmatize mental health. In hindsight, the training came at a crucial moment—before life as we know it was transformed by #COVID19. Supporting yourself, your teams, your friends, and your family is essential for all of us to get through this together. Only together do we move #ForwardTogether.”
5. Management and C-Suite Behavior Modeling
But of course, all the training in the world won’t help if the upper level staff isn’t modeling the right kind of behavior. As managers and executives, you also have lots of stress, so how do you handle it? Do you speak openly about your stressors with your team? Do you block off break periods or mention you’re going for a walk or doing a 10-minute meditation to blow off steam? When your team sees and hears these types of behaviors, it gives them permission to take care of their mental health, too. Conversely, if you never take time off, answer emails at 1 a.m., and refuse to discuss stress factors with your employees, you’ll create an atmosphere of stigma around it.
You can reduce stigma by talking openly and making sure your staff understands all of the mental health benefits on offer by your company. Show your staff that wellness is a priority by being supportive of employees’ needs and disabilities and showing empathy for their struggles. Now more than ever, our work-life balance is blurring thanks to working from home, often with other family members (some of whom are also working) in the house simultaneously, feeling like longer work hours are the norm from home, and parents being responsible for homeschooling at the same time. The upper level needs to promote a positive work-life balance by encouraging employees to put themselves and their families first—and displaying that same behavior.
Tom Spahr, Vice President of Talent Management and Development at The Home Depot, shared at our WW session that his leaders are emphasizing a "take care of you first," message to help associates feel like they have permission to be flexible with their time and have a better work-life integration. They are actively checking in on associates and encouraging them to schedule homeschooling breaks on their calendar—and following up when they don't see it.
Finally, continuing to give positive feedback matters now more than ever, as people are extra concerned about job security and experiencing major performance pressure at work. Dr. Lavelle mentions that it might be harder for managers to remember to give positive reinforcements over Zoom, after, say, an employee leads a presentation, and encourages doing that to remind employees of their worth and professionalism—especially as so many of us sit at the “office” in sweatpants these days.
AEG’s Bill Martin shared at our WW session that he’s been sending out regular messages letting people know their jobs are safe for that quarter in order to ease anxiety around job security.
6.Take a Break
This is a big one. It may seem obvious, but taking a few minutes, hours, or days away from the office (or computer, as the case may be), is often just what the doctor ordered. Anything from a 10 to 30-minute calendar block-off to actually taking those PTO days you’ve earned can be a real boon to your mental wellness.
“It's important right now for employers to encourage people to go on vacation, whether or not they physically go anywhere,” says Dr. Lavelle. “It's been pretty well researched that more vacation time leads to more productivity, more work-life balance, and in the long run, makes people less likely to burn out and less likely to get sick.”
Even if it’s not taking a full vacation, managers should be encouraging their employees to block off break times or incorporate no-meeting times. For example, meetings are not allowed to be scheduled at Headspace during certain times. “Twice a day, we have 30 minute breaks where you cannot schedule a meeting. You can do whatever you want, but we also have group meditation if you want to join in. And we have every other Friday as a no-meeting Friday,” says Headspace President CeCe Morken.
At Grey Horse Communications, a PR and communications agency based in NYC, they put an event on the whole team's calendar at 3 p.m. every day in the spring to remind people to have a break, go outside, and take a walk. They’re also carrying over Summer Fridays through the fall and do not allow email and Slacking after hours, something they say their clients have gotten used to and even come to appreciate.
Tom Spahr at The Home Depot shared that they encourage 45-minute meetings, as well as “walking meetings”—going on a walk while you have your meeting on the phone.
7. Physical Wellness Can Help Mental Wellness
The link between good physical and mental health is undeniable. Ensuring we are physically and mental healthy allows for a holistic approach to our daily wellness and it’s the reason why programs like WW and Gympass have both incorporated mental wellness tools for their members. WW has also released additional mental health content for members such as 5-Minute Coaching, which provides practical guides and techniques that complement existing mindset content offered to members. Companies like Unilever, GE, Deloitte, and PayPal offer WW and Gympass as a benefit to their employees, giving them a boost in both their mental and physical wellness.
Gympass gives its members access to four therapy sessions per month and unlimited access to 24 essential wellness apps including Healing Clouds, Wellness Coach, and Chill Anywhere, in addition to live-streamed classes from 1,700 gyms and eight personal training sessions per month.
WW offers its members curated meditations from Headspace and has the Mindset Pillar, which offers techniques grounded in positive psychology and cognitive behavioral therapy designed to help members embrace challenges, view setbacks as learning opportunities, and build self-awareness, self-compassion and gratitude. It also launched a new pillar focused on sleep for MyWW+, with tools like sleep tracking, sleep playlists, and science-backed strategies for better sleep. And when lockdown started it added more on-demand content related to coping with the stress of the pandemic.
“We provided a much-needed community connection by transforming thousands of physical workshops to virtual workshops in just six days so members could see, hear, and learn from WW coaches and other members,” Foster says.
These seven tools are only the beginning. You can also encourage a worker-led wellness committee and provide a wellness portal with resources like healthy recipes, online workout videos, and emotional health resources. Because really, the more tools the better—there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to address stress and anxiety.
“Sometimes there's a pressure at work to present a perfect face forward, that doesn't show stress,” says Dr. Wilbourne. “But it’s okay to say I need help, it’s okay to look for a tool that's going to help you manage your stress, whatever that may be.”