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Why empathy is key as employees return to workplaces

HR needs to be ready to deal with fear, depression and other challenges.
By: | May 29, 2020 • 4 min read

As employees return to the workplace, profit and productivity aren’t the only concerns on their employers’ mind.

The mental health of workers ranks high on everyone’s list; some employees will be fearful to return because they have no idea what will meet them at the door.

Will their job or job tasks be the same? What new policies and procedures will they have to observe? What if some employees don’t wear a mask? Will social distancing change their relationship with co-workers or customers? Will they catch COVID-19 and spread it to their family or friends?

This new normal is stressful and can result in disorientation, anxiety, panic attacks, personality changes, depression, isolation and other unanticipated emotional and behavioral employee changes. However, these situations can be managed with appropriate HR support, empathy, flexibility and adequate time to adjust, experts say.

“These times require a greater deal of flexibility from leaders and HR teams than has ever been warranted in the past,” says Kris Meade, partner, chair of the labor and employment practice at Crowell & Moring global law firm. “In many ways, the playbook is out the window, [but a portion] is still with us because we still have a legal framework in place to handle issues that fall under the broad umbrella of mental health.”

Create Options

Common questions that clients ask Meade include the duration of employee accommodations and how frequently they can grant leave to workers suffering from mental health issues, while still maintaining a productive workplace. He says these questions will be “magnified 10 times over in this COVID environment.”

Related: The legal do’s and don’ts of returning to workplaces

But employers now know which jobs can be successfully performed remotely. Their fear of lost productivity among remote workers or that collaboration or teamwork would be compromised has not materialized in many cases, he explains.

When it comes to productivity, an online workplace study conducted in April by Pollfish on behalf of Hibob, a people-management platform, revealed some interesting results. Of the 1,000 U.S. remote workers surveyed, 73% of those living with others feel productive working from home. But 47% who live alone do not, suggesting the effect of isolation from friends, family and peers—which can lead to anxiety, depression and other productivity killers.

The study also found that 87% of respondents are comfortable balancing the needs of their families with work, indicating that companies have been offering the flexibility workers need. Still, remote workers want their action items and responsibilities well-defined. While 53% indicated their tasks and priorities are clear, 34% crave more clarity and nearly 14% feel as if they have no direction. Not surprisingly, 61% of senior managers feel productive working from home, compared to 49% of individual contributors.

For employers that can’t offer remote options but have workers who are exhibiting mental health issues, they need to demonstrate flexibility.

Change employees’ job or job tasks. Relocate them to a more isolated workspace. Alter their work schedule. Recommend they stay unplugged during breaks. Create separate office spaces for prayer or meditation. Enable them to work from both home and the office, although office settings provide more human contact and opportunities for empathy, Meade says.

Some employees may become emotionally distraught and act out by being disruptive around co-workers. HR can tell them they need to control their behavior as a condition of employment and then suggest mental health counseling, says Meade.

“Change some of the things they’re not doing well in these moments that are stress-related,” he says, adding that termination may not be cut and dry, especially if the person has a disability. “It’s important to understand their medical condition.”

How Are You Feeling?

Employees also need to feel empowered and safe addressing their emotional wellbeing with their boss or coworkers, says Chai Feldblum, partner, Morgan Lewis global law firm. They may be experiencing anxiety, for instance, or feel uncomfortable working with others who don’t observe social distancing.

“This isn’t something that [employees] necessarily know how to do,“ she says, adding that separate training webinars are needed for managers and frontline workers. “Training can give workers the script and skills and an easy way for them to talk to someone if they feel the person isn’t complying. This is not about changing beliefs, but about changing behaviors.”

See also: What to consider as you write your return-to-work strategy

Also convey that there’s no shame in requesting accommodations like time off work, with or without pay, which many employers overlook. She explains that employees with mental impairments are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act and can’t be legally laid off or terminated as long as they perform their essential job functions.

Feldblum says HR needs to provide managers with as much direction and skills as possible, back them up and encourage them to brainstorm accommodations with employees to avoid legal and performance issues later on.

Long-Term Fix

Meanwhile, HR needs to move employees from the fear zone to the learning zone, says Chuck Gillespie, CEO at the National Wellness Institute.

“Help people understand what they can and can’t do,” he says, adding that the third zone is the growth zone, in which people learn how to apply empathy and other skills to service others. “Operating managers, department heads or leaders must constantly communicate more than ever [with employees]: ‘Are you afraid, learning or growing?’ ”

Likewise, if your organization supports a wellness committee, he says, its members can help managers assess situations, engage with managers in staff conversations and identify triggers that cause emotional behaviors: Is this individual truly fearful of COVID-19 or simply abusing company policies or benefits?

Working from home also poses its own set of challenges. Remote employees may feel stressed or depressed because they’re isolated or overwhelmed with family responsibilities. Some may have exhausted their savings or returned to former bad habits like smoking as a way of coping with the pandemic.

“You can have the safest, cleanest environment but some [employees] will be struggling,” Gillespie says. “Give people the help they need. Whether or not the virus goes way, the issues with health, lifestyle choices, financial wellness and safety concerns are going to be ongoing for years to come.”

Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.

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