Coronavirus (COVID-19) cases are rising once again in almost every U.S. state and across Europe, dashing our hopes that we’ll be able to return to normal life anytime soon.1 However, as we enter month nine, we are learning from our experience with the virus and seeing some best practices start to emerge. In this blog, we touch on new research that sheds light on how people are faring in the pandemic and offer four key insights to help you support employees in this next phase.
1. Acknowledge differences in how COVID-19 affects the generations.
Several recent studies, including our own, show that people are experiencing this pandemic differently, depending on their generation. Members of Generation Z (those currently ages 18 to 25) seem to be faring the worst, with 90% reporting a negative impact on their health and well-being. They are significantly more likely to be stressed, eat poorly, worry about bills, and feel lonely. Millennials (ages 26 to 39) and Gen X (ages 40 to 55) report similar effects, although at lower levels. The baby boomers (ages 56 to 74) in our study reported the least impact on well-being of all the generations.
Key insight: A big difference between younger and older generations is the need for social connection. Younger people are feeling an acute sense of loss in not being able to socialize as they used to—both at work and in their personal time. Our study revealed that younger generations feel employers should be assisting with mental health and are more likely to take advantage of workplace offerings in this space. So, if you have a high percentage of younger workers, increase social connection via support or affinity groups and continue to promote mental health resources like Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs).
2. Continue to offer flexibility in how employees work.
By this point, most employees straddling the responsibilities of childcare, at-home schooling, or caring for older relatives have cobbled together some sort of solution. However, as cases rise, we could see schools opt for all-remote learning, daycares shut down, and paid caregivers reluctant to come into the home. If this happens, employees will again be looking for flexibility in their workday and possibly more time off; employees who have recently returned to the office might ask to work remotely once more.
Key insight: To maintain productivity and engagement levels right now, organizations have to be more involved in helping employees negotiate work and life than ever before. Some would argue that this isn’t such a bad thing. The coronavirus has exposed some of the shortcomings of our previous ways of working, which didn’t really factor in flexibility for caregiving or other situations. Consider your employees’ personal needs to ensure they’re able to be happy, productive employees. Then, make sure they’re aware of any time off or leave you offer, allow them to be creative in coming up with alternative ways of working, and coach managers to be supportive as we face a potential shift in flexible work arrangements over the next few months.
3. Offer support for “pandemic fatigue.”
In a few months, it will be a year since we first learned of the novel coronavirus. “Pandemic fatigue“ is definitely starting to set in. Pandemic fatigue is being identified as a form of “crisis fatigue” or a “human response to unrelenting stress that can cause a person to feel physically numb or tired.” We’re feeling less motivated at work and school, and with little to look forward to—not to mention how we will handle the holidays—there’s a general malaise going around. It’s tempting to throw in the towel, especially if we have not been personally touched by the disease. Yet public health officials stress that we cannot let our guard down now and must be more vigilant than ever about taking precautions.
Key insight: Psychologists believe it’s helpful for us to focus on the things we can control right now, the basics—like appropriate physical distancing, wearing a mask, practicing good hand hygiene, and staying home if we’re showing symptoms. Getting a flu shot is also something we can do as we enter the flu season, and organizations are helping their populations understand just how vital these shots are this year. We have helped several clients successfully set up drive-thru flu shot clinics to help keep people safe while following current guidelines and best practices. As an organization, it’s critical to remind your populations to stay vigilant and take proper precautions as the days get shorter and—for many—the weather gets colder.
4. Check in with employees to see how they feel about your organization’s efforts—you might be surprised.
Companies have stepped up their support for employees during this unprecedented time, but research shows that employees may not be satisfied. Our recent study showed that the majority of employees do not feel their company has given them the support they need for good mental or physical health. Just under half feel that they have been given the right support to maintain financial stability during the pandemic. An IBM study also revealed a disconnect between employers and employees—80% of employers and just 46% of employees feel that their organization is supporting the physical and emotional health of its workforce.
Key insight: The best way to bridge the gap between the support you offer and employees’ perception of it is to ask and act. Pulse surveys are a quick way to check how employees are feeling and surface new ideas for how to best respond—whether it’s paid caregiver leave; extra pay for frontline workers; flexible work arrangements; working from home permanently (our research showed that 58% never want to go back to an office setting); or more access to mental health resources including counseling sessions, and mindfulness or sleep apps. With at least several more months of living with the coronavirus, now is the time to extend, refresh, or promote well-being offerings. And, as we noted before, make sure to especially support Gen Z workers with mental health and social connectedness programs.
It certainly seems like this health crisis will never end, but we know things will eventually get better. At that time, it’s clear that employees will remember which employers went out of their way to help them during some of their most difficult moments. So, we urge organizations to take a hard look at what’s worked and what hasn’t over the past eight months, and make some tweaks now to help employees care for all aspects of their well-being until the crisis has passed.