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In Practice

How to Spot When Employees Are Struggling, and How to Plan for a Healthier Workforce

Partner at Mercer

Tomorrow marks World Mental Health Day, and as the coronavirus pandemic has spread staff mental wellbeing has risen rapidly up the corporate agenda. HR directors and their teams have had to move quickly to put systems and processes in place to help employees work from home safely, productively and, for many, happily.

The crisis is far from over, and we are now facing one of the deepest global recessions in living memory. And perhaps for the first time, a public health issue lies at the heart of an economic catastrophe.

As such, employers have now woken up to the importance of having a health strategy in place. Those that had only paid lip service to looking after staff wellbeing are now scrambling to bridge the gaps in their workplace benefits programs and to address employee health.

Reinventing for the Future

We are now moving into the next phase of the crisis and businesses are starting to think about what the future might hold.

However, they are finding that the world has significantly changed, and even once the pandemic passes, it is clear that we will be looking at new ways of working globally. Against the background of the worst recession in over 100 years, there is a strong provocation to reinvent our businesses and the way in which they operate.

Some staff will be keen to return to work, particularly those who have suffered from isolation and loneliness through the periods of lockdown. Others have gladly embraced home working and will be keen for their employers to put new flexible long-term work policies in place.

Simultaneously, environmental concerns may lead to fewer business meetings, less travel and more people wanting to live outside of crowded cities. This will have a knock-on effect on what is considered reasonable in terms of business traveling and in-person meetings.

Even those workers whose jobs do not allow for home working, such as builders, hospital staff and supermarket employees, may be looking for added flexibility, perhaps not in terms of where they work, but how and when.

The Challenges Ahead

While these trends could spell better work/life balance for employees, they are likely to create more complications for HR teams. There will be logistical challenges to overcome and businesses will be keen to boost productivity and keep staff engaged.

Health and wellbeing has taken center stage for many companies, but in reality, promoting staff wellness will continue to present many difficulties.

For instance, businesses are finally starting to acknowledge the critical role that mental wellbeing plays for their workers, but this can be harder to manage when people are at home working. 

Significantly more people are feeling anxious, stressed or depressed, and lots are running into financial difficulties. New data from Mental Health America — based on voluntary online mental health screenings — revealed over 169,000 additional people suffering from moderate to severe depression or anxiety by the end of June. 18,000 additional participants were found to be at risk for psychosis in June alone.

Physical health may pose problems too, as employees continue to be at risk of catching the COVID-19 virus, with some even suffering from Long-COVID where they show symptoms for several months after testing positive.

At the same time, the pandemic has caused a spike in domestic abuse cases and companies will need to find ways to do all they can to support their staff. Some employees may be facing acute trauma as a result of the crisis, particularly those who work in emergency services. Over time, this could develop into Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Those who suffer from the virus itself could also be at risk of developing PTSD. Research found that people who have a heart attack have a 15% chance of developing PTSD, while those who receive prolonged treatment in Intensive Care (ICU) allegedly have a 30% chance of developing PTSD.

COVID-19 has created an array of challenges for organizations, and employers should have a duty of care to support their workforce during this troubling time.

Get the Basics Right

With significant health challenges ahead for organizations, HR directors must put plans in place to protect their staff. These programs should be designed to support the physical, mental, social and financial wellbeing of workers.

The cornerstone of any employee-sponsored healthcare initiative should be an Employee Assistance Program. An EAP will give your staff a confidential avenue to discuss any concerns or issues they many have around their health. It is also a good avenue to point staff in the direction of further resources, whether that’s medical benefits your company offers or external services such as the mental health charities and self-help groups that have proved particularly helpful to Long-COVID sufferers.

It’s also important that businesses recognize the long-term health implications of both coronavirus itself and some of the associated mental health issues. Employees that catch COVID-19 may suffer symptoms for extended periods of time — even once they test negative for the virus. From an employment point of view, it’s important to note that some never had the opportunity to access a test but are suffering just the same.

The symptoms for long-COVID include breathlessness, fatigue, muscle pain and so on. Any staff suffering from long-COVID may not be able to return immediately to work, even once the usual two- to eight-week recovery time mentioned by the WHO is over. Businesses may have staff that are struggling for as long as six months.

The variety of Long-COVID symptoms or complications is huge and include myocarditis — or inflammation of the heart muscle — complicated lung issues, neurological symptoms and many more. Some of those are mediated by the body’s own overshooting immune response or autoimmune reactions. Again, any staff who experience these complications are likely to need a phased return to work.

Employers must trust their staff and recognize that the medical profession has not yet caught up with the virus.  The range of possible symptoms is wide, and businesses must not expect all their workers to experience the same issues. That means that organizations must put flexible policies in place to account for the wide variance in how the virus affects different people.

Know the Warning Signs

Training is also critical to ensure that your managers have the knowledge and skills to spot when staff are struggling. Whether through Zoom calls or face-to-face meetings, your managers are best placed to notice when one of their team members is depressed, stressed, unwell or even experiencing domestic violence. They are not expected to diagnose any of these — nor should they attempt to do so -—but they should watch out for changes in behavior, mood, productivity or engagement and use basic empathy skills to support the employee.

If a manager does feel that a member of staff needs help, they can then highlight the availability of the Employee Assistance Program as well as any other resources that are available.

No two people are the same, so the signs that someone is struggling are likely to vary from person to person. However, there are typical warning signs to look out for, particularly when it comes to stress, anxiety or depression. Usually these are characterized by behavioral, emotional, psychological or physical changes.

These include:

  • Changes in mood or behavior
  • Facial expressions
  • Tone of voice
  • Changes in performance
  • Absences from work
  • Memory lapses or vagueness
  • Becoming easily distracted
  • Emotional signs such as tearfulness or irritableness
  • Relationship problems
  • Hypersensitivity to criticism
  • Defensiveness or anger
  • Aches, pains that are not easily explained
  • Sudden weight loss or gain
  • Lack of energy
  • Problems with sleep
  • Increased reliance on alcohol, smoking, caffeine and recreational or illegal drugs
  • Building for the future

COVID-19 has created an array of challenges for organizations, such as long-COVID, PTSD, domestic abuse, stress, anxiety and depression. Employers have a duty of care to support their workforce and to provide benefits and resources to promote physical and mental wellbeing starting with an EAP and management training.

The good news is that businesses that get this right will have happy, healthy, engaged staff — which in turn boosts productivity. The crisis has shown how integral staff wellbeing is to the survival and success of a business, now leaders and HR departments must learn those lessons and make changes to better promote health in the future.

Wolfgang Seidl

Partner at Mercer

Dr. Wolfgang Seidl is a partner at Mercer and leads Workplace Health Consulting in the UK and Europe. He advises organizations on health and well-being strategy, integrated models of health care, data analytics, and proactive interventions, such as resilience programs.

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