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How is COVID-19 Impacting the Mental Health of Remote and Furloughed Workers

May is National Mental Health Awareness month. With COVID-19 still going strong, millions of people have either been forced to work remotely, or have been furloughed indefinitely. Fear, anxiety and doubt have been rampant since the virus has taken hold, and with an uncertain future on the horizon, mental health has become a more prominent issue than ever before.

This article seeks to understand how COVID-19 has been affecting remote and furloughed workers and the strategies you can employ as a business owner to protect the mental health of impacted employees.

Mental health challenges faced by remote workers

Loneliness and isolation

Transitioning from a bustling workplace environment to working from the solitude of home can be lonely, especially if you live by yourself. With millions of people sheltering in place, face-to-face interactions are quickly becoming a thing of the past.

Over time, some of your remote workers may come to miss the social aspects of interacting with co-workers and managers. Even if your company regularly holds Skype or Slack meetings, interactions can only go so far with everyone separated by a screen.

This disconnection may leave many employees feeling lonely and isolated, which could lead to feelings of anxiety and depression.

Lack of focus 

For most people, the home environment is a place of relaxation. Most homes are stocked with creature comforts: beds, couches, refrigerators filled with snacks and meals, TVs, video game consoles, etc.

While this may sound great for the uninitiated, any seasoned remote worker can tell you that working from home can be harder than it seems. One of the most significant issues you’ll deal with is gathering the focus needed to accomplish your work.

Contending with crying children, needy pets, and the temptation to laze around and watch your favorite shows can kill your focus and make it that much more challenging to complete your tasks.

Working while surrounded by home comforts can lead to lethargy and increased food cravings (you’ll always be near your refrigerator), which could lead to weight gain and an inability to concentrate. All of these factors can culminate into depression amongst other mental health issues.

Be empathetic

Avoid creating a rift between your impacted and non-impacted employees by keeping communication open and transparent. The biggest mistake you could make is directing your non-impacted employees to avoid addressing specific topics with their furloughed co-workers.

Imposing communication restrictions during the current COVID-19 crisis would likely do more harm than good. It’s important you send a message of solidarity to your workforce. After all, when everything is said and done, your remote and furloughed employees should hopefully be returning to their typical duties.

Be empathic by keeping furloughed employees in the loop. By allowing those impacted by COVID-19 to understand the reasoning behind your decisions, you maintain employee loyalty, while also enabling continued engagement with the company.

Offer mental health and wellness resources

Anticipate and stay one step ahead of potential issues that may arise by providing mental health and wellness resources you can freely distribute amongst impacted employees.

Counseling services like Talkspace are designed to lend an ear to anyone dealing with problems they need to get off their chest. These services generally employ counselors who are trained to identify mental health issues, and are typically available 24/7.

An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is another option that connects employees with professionals who can help them work through issues revolving around family, personal, and work-related problems.

It’s one thing to talk about mental health challenges. It’s quite another to take steps to prevent issues from arising in the first place. Let’s look at a few ways employers can battle mental health challenges that may arise from employees stuck at home.

Engage with employees to ease stress levels

Engaging regularly with impacted employees can help ease stress levels by helping you to identify what your team needs to succeed while working from home.

One way you could do this is by engaging in job-specific audits. Here are a few examples of what you could ask to determine the needs of your impacted employees:

  • Do you have distractions in the home that require ample amounts of attention, such as pets or children? 
  • Do you have an adequate internet connection? 
  • Do you have the proper equipment needed to perform your duties from home?  

Helping remote workers ascertain their needs to succeed from home will demonstrate they have your full support. In turn, you can determine whether or not you have the resources available to help ease their burdens.

Check-in with staff that have been furloughed 

Just because your staff has been furloughed, doesn’t mean you can’t take time to reach out and say hello. A simple call from HR is all that’s needed to maintain communication with your staff during the COVID-19 outbreak.

It would help if you made it a point to check in regularly to see how your employees are doing. These chats are informal in nature and generally require only a few minutes of your time. This simple gesture can be very empowering to employees who may be struggling with mental health issues.

Another great option is to organize a group conversation to foster communication and encouragement amongst impacted staff members. The goal is to lift spirits and keep employees “plugged in” to the company.

How is the cannabis industry being affected?

We’d be remiss not to touch on the cannabis industry, which has been doing exponentially better than many other sectors deemed non-essential. Many dispensaries are hiring additional workers to meet heightened demand.

That said, the cannabis industry is not immune to the current events triggered by the coronavirus. While it’s true that many cannabis operations are doing well at the moment, there are still quite a few cannabis businesses that are suffering financially, just like everyone else, which could lead to the necessity of furloughing employees.

Mental health is just as important to the cannabis industry as it is to every other industry currently impacted by this crisis. Cannabis business owners should set aside time to speak with their employees to ensure they’re mentally healthy and  not dealing with any underlying issues.

Final Thoughts 

COVID-19 is a once in a lifetime event that has shaken up the status quo. As an employer, it falls on your shoulders to take steps to protect your staff’s mental health as we all fight through this situation together.

No one really knows what the “new normal” will be as we moved towards an uncertain future. However, no matter what happens, you should always make the mental health of your employees your top priority.

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