High-Touch Mental Wellbeing Strategies for the Low-Touch Workplace

We are learning to live in a low-touch society.

There are two dictionary definitions of the verb “to touch.” The first is physical. Under that definition, low-touch means physical avoidance. The second definition is “to have an effect on” or “make a difference to.” The less we do of the former, the more we must do of the latter. Employees more than ever crave inclusion, understanding and control.

COVID-19 has voided many of the tools used to encourage inclusion, combat workplace biases, and address the loneliness epidemic, such as social gatherings, team trainings, daycares and gyms on site, and more interpersonal interactions. In their place, the virus is teaching us to avoid each other’s personal space, question each other’s travel and shopping plans, and become danger-tracking machines — constantly scanning our environment for threats. High stress is worsening cognitive distortions, including all-or-nothing thinking, catastrophizing, mind reading and attributing usually negative meaning to what is said and fortune telling, focusing on the negatives and over-generalizing.

To help us cope with this age of anxiety and dislocation, employers can be a counterforce for good. Focusing on the mental wellbeing of our employees amid this pandemic will drive up morale and productivity. Most importantly, it will show our employees that we care. But doing so will require a new round of people strategies, employee handbooks, and internal policies.

This virus has taught us that even as we physically distance, human beings still need each other. At best, the virus might provide us an opportunity to revisit how we treat our most important assets, our employees. If we get it right, this reappraisal might continue to inform good practice even in a post-COVID world.

Focus area one: Combat loneliness.

Social distancing, a critical tool to reducing the pace of infection, comes with heavy emotional and economic costs. Loneliness, the distress we feel when we desire social connection but cannot experience it, undermines our well-being and health. The economic impact of loneliness is staggering.

Loneliness was already an epidemic pre-COVID-19. Some researchers claimed telecommuting played a role. Since the 2000s, companies have used permanent work-from-home arrangements as a strategy to manage their burgeoning real estate costs. While there are mixed views on the impact of low interpersonal interaction on corporate innovation, telecommuting accomplished what it set out to do — reducing operating costs. One unintended side effect, however, was increased isolation and loneliness across corporate America. Many craved workplace interaction and experienced heightened distraction and stress as the lines between work and home life began to blur.

According to an HBR article published in 2018 by a group of leaders from BetterUp, lonelier workers reported lower job satisfaction, fewer promotions, more frequent job switching, and a higher likelihood of quitting their current job in the next six months. Feeling a lack of workplace social support is associated with similar negative business outcomes.

Greater flexibility also reduced personal contact between managers and employees, making it more difficult for supervisors to notice if an individual was performing adequately or struggling with personal issues. One study indicated that if employees worked remotely more than three days per week, their relationships with coworkers suffered. We have now been remote for months with no end in sight.

While COVID-19 is a temporary situation, more remote work or hybrid workplaces will remain in place even after the crisis ends. Whether our employees are able to thrive in such a culture depends on whether they feel connected and engaged, and whether they can draw a clear line between work and life.

Employer Actions:

  • Implement practices to encourage face-to-face contact even if employees are working in different places. Daily brief video chats, for example, can improve communication and minimize feelings of isolation for employees working outside the traditional office.
  • Pick up the phone and call team-members. The novelty of remote work has worn off and for many the reality of isolation is kicking in. One on one communication is a good counterbalance to mass-zoom gatherings.
  • Do not assume how people are faring with remote work. Ask them and adjust expectations accordingly, and be explicit about team integration expectations. The same will be true for telecommuting. It always starts with an employee conversation and then needs to be blended with the organization’s needs. Alternating work arrangements might be needed, where the employee works from home for a part of the week.
  • Consider quarterly clinical surveys of all employees driven by a broader EAP (Employee Assistance Program) strategy, to detect potential concerns related to the wellbeing of remote workers. As the impact of the current crisis deepens, the analysis of insurance claims data should allow us to identify links between mental health and physical manifestations like substance abuse. What will be harder to track is how well employer interventions are working.
  • Onsite wellness strategies need to be remotely accessible and more targeted to current conditions from a mental health standpoint and include mindfulness training, meditation, etc. to ensure they are supporting employees’ overall mental wellbeing.
  • Use recognition and company culture tracking software to keep a finger on the pulse of your company. Cloud-based tool such as Hi5 enables you to add all your employees and line managers to the company account and encourages everyone to give each other recognition on a weekly basis. Recognition (showing gratitude) is a clinically-proven factor to mental health and motivation at work.

Focus area two: foster inclusion.

While the pandemic has brought some of us together in love, others have united by racism and xenophobia, lashing out at people of Asian descent. In the fight for survival, many have embraced their baser instincts. By some accounts, this parallels the aftermath of 9/11, which brought out a similar set of biases based on nationality and religion.

In addition the virus and its impacts seem to disproportionately impact lower income communities in the U.S. Marginalized communities have higher rates of underlying health issues, making them more susceptible to negative health outcomes as a result of COVID-19. Those closest to them will suffer most. Inevitably, the trauma marginalized communities are currently experiencing will affect our organizations. The fundamental question we need to answer is how future D&I strategies and policies will address the systemic inequities that are being exposed during this crisis.

Despite extensive efforts and training, business leader remain concerned about bias in many organizations. Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) strategies across the country are still not quite where they need to be. A recent HBR article suggested that women of color face major obstacles as it pertains to their career advancement, 59% of Latino men and women faces snubs in the workplace, 52% of Asian women feel that “executive presence” is defined as conforming to white-male standards, and the list goes on and on.

While organizations may feel diverse on paper, research has made it amply clear that having a diverse employee base does not automatically mean workplace biases will go away. Diversity does not stick without inclusion. In an inclusive workplace, every single person has a voice. Such a workplace culture has been linked to positive organizational outcomes such as reduced turnover, greater productivity, and team engagement.

If a successful D&I strategy is fundamentally about behavior change in the workplace, how does it need to evolve in a post-COVID world? Are there mental health strategies that can help leaders and HR partners to ensure that D&I is not compromised and employees have the tools to thrive?

Employer Actions:

The most effective D&I strategies are highly deliberate and built into an organization’s DNA across recruiting, employee relations and professional development. COVID-19 will require those people strategies to be revised to ensure they deliberately address the obvious (and not so obvious) workplace biases that will now arise and embrace an opportunity to improve.

  • If an employer has not yet adopted a deliberate D&I strategy, now is the time to create one, and to ensure that adhering to it is a top-down mandate. If D&I is not seen and felt as a corporate priority, it will fail.
  • Support ALL of your people. Organizations will need to create D&I strategies that incorporate unbiased behavioral health support for employees processing trauma resulting from COVID-19. Proper support must become a focal point in any post COVID-19 D&I strategy to ensure post-COVID trauma is managed. Doing so will prevent a “return-to-work to unemployment” pipeline.
  • Communication, communication, communication — obviously this can’t be stressed enough. Staff returning to work will come back with an array of experiences. It will be imperative that employees have ways to voice those experiences. Leverage employee resource groups to promote culturally competent communities within organizations so employees can speak freely and comfortably about their experiences when needed. Organizations should further promote these efforts by facilitating collective conversations to help direct any culture changes that are needed. D&I sensitivity and bias training are a must. Both ought to be mandatory and treated with the same level of seriousness as sexual harassment training.
  • Transparency. Keeping employees informed about your progress and setbacks will be important to keep employees engaged. You won’t always get it right and that’s ok. Create dashboards or frequent reports to keep employees informed of your progress. When setbacks occur, create inclusive mechanisms to leverage the cultural competency and collective brain power of your employees — to offer constructive solutions and effective course corrections.
  • Practice what you preach. Every CEO will need to take on the responsibility of carrying out their D&I strategy through everyday communication and actions. The data shows that an inclusive work environment promotes organizational success. CEOs will foster an environment where every single person in the organization will be heard.

COVID-19 is going to result in aggressive cost-cutting across the board. People strategies like D&I may take a backseat in the face of more “here and now” needs like the company’s financial health. CFOs are going to be forced to take a “no sacred cows” mindset as they approach enterprise cost reduction strategies, and in the same vein CEOs are going to be forced to qualify their strategies as must-haves or nice-to-haves. At a time like this, CEOs and CFOs must realize that their most valuable asset is their people. The smartest companies innovate their way out of a downturn, and this should apply to their people strategies as well.

Note from the authors

Karthik Ganesh (EmpiRx Health), Carin-Isabel Knoop (Harvard Business School) & John A. Quelch (University of Miami), Authors of Compassionate Management of Mental Health in the Modern Workplace (2018): We welcome feedback and input as we all learn together.

Please reach out to us at kganesh@empirxhealth.comcknoop@hbs.edu and jquelch@bus.miami.edu and feel free to share widely.

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