The world is inching closer to normalcy, but few of us can truly conceive what “normal” will look like by the end of the year. We’ve talked a lot about the steps HR leaders can take to prepare employees for returning to the office, from the benefits they should offer to cultural changes they can make. 

However, one thing that’s difficult to prepare for is the mental health toll imposed by the events of the last year and a half — many of which are still ongoing. A catastrophically deadly pandemic, racial violence, a contested election, and even a riot in the nation’s capital, all contribute to a sense of dread and anxiety. Many of us found ourselves asking, “what could possibly come next?” 

It’s difficult to describe, let alone articulate, the feelings average employees are enduring. Fear, anxiety, rage, languishing — each can impact productivity, and few can be resolved by simply going back to the office. So what can HR and people leaders do? The first step is to understand where they’re coming from.

Vicarious trauma and the lingering effects of lockdown

The circumstances of the lockdown exposed us to unique and unprecedented forms of suffering and grief. For those of us personally affected by the pandemic, whether we got sick ourselves, or lost friends and family members, the grief is still fresh and palpable. For others, who looked on from their homes at empty streets and grocery store shelves, daily death tolls on their smartphones and Instagram feeds, and marches for equality in their cities, the feelings are complex and indescribable.

Vicarious trauma, as psychologists call it, describes the emotional residue that results from repeatedly witnessing and encountering trauma. Although we usually talk about it from the perspective of frontline workers and healthcare professionals, overexposure to COVID news has impacted our collective mental health.

“Vicarious trauma is real and can result from continuously hearing about or witnessing others' suffering. We are bombarded by images through social media and news outlets that result in our viewing a trauma repeatedly which can impact our own emotional health and wellbeing,” said Cynthia Coffelt, LCSW, who specializes in grief counseling.

The symptoms of vicarious trauma include preoccupation with an event, bystander’s guilt, anxiety, and anger. Employees may cope with these feelings in a variety of ways — some might withdraw themselves, while others might seek acknowledgment or validation. Simon Elkjær, a Chief Marketing Officer, suggests “Though grief has always been a topic we should always approach with caution and grace, I believe we can agree that COVID-related grief is different.”

He suggests employers should strive “to be more understanding, compassionate, and provide them with the healthy environment they need to cope and overcome this.”

“Vicarious trauma is real and can result from continuously hearing about or witnessing others' suffering."

Empathize with disenfranchised grief

For those of us struggling with vicarious trauma as a result of the events of 2020, we might be experiencing something called disenfranchised grief. Disenfranchised grief is a form of grief or sorrow that is hidden, unrecognized, or invalidated by social norms.

Coffelt describes it as, “If one cannot relate to or understand the particular loss, it may be minimized or diminished.  This in turns leads to the internalization of grief which can present as anxiety, depression, poor health outcomes and profound sadness and isolation,” 

Witnessing the devastation wrought by the pandemic, racial injustice, and political violence can make it difficult for many to feel like their sadness is valid. However, the consequences are still all the same: in June of 2020, 31% of adults reported symptoms of depression and anxiety, and the numbers have largely stayed the same since. 

In the workplace, the consequences can be lost productivity, reduced hours, or even leaving a position or the workforce entirely. Since these issues are still pertinent, and the road to recovery is particularly slow and bumpy, organizations and HR leaders would do well to reevaluate and rejuvenate their strategy to treat the mental health of their employees.

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Practical solutions and coping strategies

Dealing with mental illness in the workplace has never been easy for people teams, but understanding the issues and what to empathize with is a good first step. As we gear up to return to the office, it’s crucial not to rush employees back. We know that many working parents are still without consistent childcare support, but all employees will need time to readjust, both mentally and physically.

Coffelt suggests, “employees may be anxious about interacting with their colleagues on a daily basis again, cleanliness and safety protocols in the office space, and concerns about how to navigate childcare should their children still be home from school.”

However, there are a few practical steps and coping strategies you can implement in your organizations to help ease the pain and grief. Coffelt says, “companies can support their employees by offering access to mental health resources, support groups, task groups and by making a public statement in support of a social justice issue.”

Here are a few tips to follow:

Accept there is only so much you can do or say

Everyone grieves differently: be prepared to offer a hand, but to also offer space. Keeping an open door and acknowledging the realities can help ease the transition back.

Ease the transition back to the office

The transition back to the office stands to be the greatest challenge since employees were sent home. Coffelt believes it's very important to meet your employees where they are. “Some may be fully ready, but others may need more time to fully integrate as they are managing apprehension and anxiety about this transition.” 

Validate the experience of every employee

You don’t have to have lost someone to COVID to grieve. Instruct your managers to validate all experiences. As Coffelt says, “you may not fully understand someone else's grief, but do not undermine or diminish their experience.”

Invest in mental health resources

Telehealth appointments and employee assistance programs can go a long way to offering clinical and subclinical support. Maven offers instant access to mental health providers for expecting, intending, and current parents.

Prepare for the long run

Investing in and being honest about your employees’ mental health, especially amid an ongoing worldwide crisis, can go a long way towards building employee loyalty and improving retention. As women and mothers leave the workforce at record rates, showing your commitment can make a huge difference.

Coffelt believes, “offering accommodations such as flexible and staggered work schedules, periodic work from home and understanding demands such as managing child care and grief or loss will be vital to employee success in navigating this period.”

To find out how Maven can help you safeguard the mental health of parents in your workplace, request a demo today.

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