The ongoing and evolving effects of COVID-19 on our world is challenging HR leaders as never before, as employees and senior management look to you for guidance and strategies to keep the workforce healthy and secure. The pandemic is forcing change in every area of HR and puts a necessary spotlight on what employers are doing to support employee mental health. In response, HR teams are expanding their mental health strategies and, in many cases, are shifting resources to prioritize mental health programming.

As it is top of mind for many, naturally the topic of mental health has come up in many discussions between webinar presenters at The Grove Sessions 2020, since they kicked off in March. And in April, we hosted a session, Mental Health in the Workplace, with experts on the topic focused on behavioral health and emotional support tools. In this article we highlight the top five learnings on mental health brought out in several of the Grove Sessions so far.

Take a Holistic Approach to Health

Understandably, much of the focus in COVID-19 guidance has been on physical protection – wash your hands, keep six-feet away from others, avoid crowds — but a pandemic also takes a heavy toll on people’s mental health. Stress and anxiety make us more susceptible to illness and disease, and slower to recover when we do get sick. Seeing people wearing masks, watching news reports of grocery stores swarmed by panicked shoppers, trying to figure out the meaning of the daily COVID-19 data…It rapidly amps up worry. The restrictions imposed on our work and personal lives – keeping physical distance, working from home – can lead to withdrawal.

Grove Sessions speakers emphasize the importance of giving employees space to grieve the loss of the lives they lived and to encourage them to take a mental health day when they need to. “People are experiencing a global trauma. We need to normalize the idea of sometimes stepping back for our own mental health,” says April Koh, co-founder and CEO of Spring Health, which provides digital mental health tools for employees.

Remind employees of the assistance that is available to them and how to access it. (Most employees know they have some sort of mental health benefits but may not know what or how to use them.) Consider pulling together a specific set of integrated and comprehensive benefits for coping with COVID-19 that make it easy for employees to get all the help they need.

Managers Should be Part of the Solution

HR leaders should encourage managers to reach out to their teams more often and ask how their day is going. Also ask what is and isn’t working well and what else employees might need.

Watch for signs that an employee is struggling, such as changes in work habits or performance, or no longer participating in team meetings. (And then provide an opportunity to talk about it.) Understand that many employees are fearful: of losing a loved one or their job. Koh offers suggestions on how managers can help to reduce fear for their people: “Remove as much ambiguity as possible. Let employees know you understand that productivity is likely to decrease and be empathetic about it. Be as transparent as you can about how COVID-19 impacts the company and its plans.”

Don’t Forget to Connect

With so many employees now working from home, create opportunities for people to connect with one another. Zoom Video Communications’ manager of people operations, reporting and analytics, Sheila Krueger, shared: “Several times a month, Zoom holds an online open mic night and employees from across the world showcase their talents. Zoom encourages employees to invite their families to watch the event. Each time, more and more employees participate.”

Dealing with Bad News

If your company decides to initiate layoffs, see if you can extend mental health services to employees who lose their jobs. Be prepared to answer the “Why me?” question. “Don’t sugar coat it. Be transparent. Help them understand why the team needs to be reduced. And support them with resources to help them as best you can,” advises James Pratt, executive, leadership and culture coach at Reflective Management.

Should tragedy strike – an employee or someone’s loved one dies from COVID-19 – how do you provide support? HR leaders speaking at The Grove sessions say it’s vital to provide quick access to mental health care for everyone affected by the loss. They also urge getting a plan in place for how you will react before you need to. Some considerations: Have an internal memorial service, organize a volunteer effort in memory of the deceased, collect donations to an organization supported by the individual. You also should think through how you will reach out to family and friends.

In everything you and your leadership team do, be flexible, open and honest with employees, The Grove speakers urge. Krueger’s advice: “Be human.”

Kaleana Quibell – Kaleana is the Wellbeing Director for Sequoia, helping advise clients on strategies to support employees’ Physical, Emotional, and Financial wellbeing. In her free time, Kaleana enjoys yoga, the outdoors, and spending time with her family and puppy.