How to prioritize employee mental health during COVID-19.

As the COVID-19 situation evolves and intensifies, it’s natural that people are feeling frightened and anxious. This is amplified by 24-hour news, questionable or unauthorized sources of information circulating and increasing social isolation as governments ask Canadians to stay home.

Employers have a key role to play in helping their employees manage their mental wellness by countering anxiety with credible information, providing support to isolated people and helping employees find ways to take charge of their own well-being.

Information combats anxiety and fear.

Employees are tuned into an ongoing inundation of information from a variety of sources. “Anxiety is contagious,” notes Dr. Diane McIntosh, TELUS’ Chief Neuroscience Officer.” “When we see people panicking about things like toilet paper it’s only natural to wonder if we should be acting like that too.”

She recommends people counter rising anxiety by turning off the “noise” of social media that can drive us into a rabbit hole of questionable information. The problem with these spaces, she notes is “the more time you spend there, the more time you spend there.”

“If you’re getting freaked out by what you’re reading, get away, distract yourself for a while and then come back and find a reputable source of information,” Dr. McIntosh advises.

Employers can use regular communications to help connect employees to credible sources of information such as local medical officers of health, and federal and provincial authorities.

Of course, listening is a key part of communicating, and one survey suggests that employees want a chance to ask questions, either in a virtual meeting or through a rapid-response email.

Plus, employers can step up to provide trustworthy information as well. In a recent Edelman study 63% of employees said they trust their employer more than other sources of information when it comes to COVID-19.

Mental fitness is key.

As employees settle in for weeks, and possibly months, of virtual work and limited social contact, new pressures are likely to emerge. For example, despite government support programs, many will be concerned about finances, paying the bills and the erosion of their savings in unpredictable market conditions.

Adding to this is the worry social distancing can cause when people can’t connect directly with friends and family who may be vulnerable. And let’s not forget employees’ concerns about their own risks of falling ill. This stress, and the lack of a workday routine, can make it hard to look after personal mental wellness.

Get to know Akira by TELUS Health.

Akira by TELUS Health is a national on-demand virtual care solution. It gives members and their family direct access to secure medical consults including mental health support with friendly, knowledgeable clinicians – 24/7 and across the country. Akira is available in French and English, via smartphone or computer.

Even in relatively normal conditions, one-fifth of people struggle with a mental health or addiction problem at some point, and studies show that about half of people who suffer from depression don’t seek professional help. Even where there is an employee assistance program in place, up to two-thirds of employees don’t take advantage of the support.

Healthy virtual workplaces can help address these situations. Dr. McIntosh recommends employees follow the same routines they would for a regular day at the office, along with getting plenty of sleep and exercise.

As the weather warms up, there should be opportunities to engage in socially safe activities such as walking and bike rides. Online yoga and other fitness classes can help on those wet or cold days, plus a variety of mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) apps can assist with managing anxiety.

To learn more about mindfulness and other workplace tools that encourage mental health take a look at our conference presentation with Dr. Karen MacNeill, Registered Psychologist.

A key tool in mental wellness is people. Dr. McIntosh observes that while “we’ve never been more socially connected; we’ve also never been lonelier” as a society. The COVID-19 situation offers a great opportunity for employees to check in with each other and ask how they’re doing. Managers should also be monitoring their teams for anyone who is struggling.

This outreach can be extended to neighbours and friends who may be struggling and in need of important human connections as well.

While the coming weeks offer plenty of uncertainty, employers can help employees and their families stay connected and safe. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Provide employees with access to credible information on your intranet, social channels or via regular email or video updates
  • Make sure your executives are reaching out to employees regularly with updates about the organization and the overall pandemic response
  • Reinforce good pandemic health practices such as handwashing and social distancing
  • Enable employees to ask questions in a virtual town hall or via email
  • Make sure employees understand how your benefits program can help them
  • If you have an employee assistance program, work with that partner to ensure employees know what kind of help is available and how to access it
  • Encourage team leaders to reach out to their people on a daily basis to see how they are coping – how about a virtual coffee break via video conference?
  • Consider a buddy system or other program to encourage employees to reach out to one another regularly
  • Remind people to get enough sleep and take healthy breaks – mental wellness is strongly connected to physical wellness

For more information about getting through the COVID-19 situation, including how to talk to children and teens, check out this interview with Dr. McIntosh.

TELUS Health is proud to be Canada’s leading healthcare IT provider, with $2.5 billion invested in the industry, and 85,000 healthcare professionals in our ecosystem. We support employers, healthcare professionals and innovators in our shared commitment to a healthier Canada.

Be sure you subscribe to TELUS Talks Podcasts to stay updated and informed throughout the COVID-19 situation.

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