2020 proved to be an incredibly stressful year for all of us – and 2021 is starting in much the same vein. For starters, there is the deadly pandemic sweeping across the nation with thousands of lives lost and the personal health concerns our employees now live with every day, with business shutdowns impacting family livelihoods. We've also experienced civil unrest on a massive scale – the tip of the iceberg for so much that needs repair in American society. With faith in many institutions at an all-time low, business leaders are in a unique position to model the voice of reason. We have an opportunity to refocus our people on civility and compassion, double down on equity and fairness in our community and our workplaces, and be a force for moving our collective culture back from the edge of brinksmanship.

HR Leaders can fulfill a critical role in helping our teams navigate the waves of change taking place in our nation. With the right tools, we can help them survive and thrive, despite the challenges that continue to unfold.

As an HR leader, several themes emerge in thinking about what we can do to help our workforce through the challenges they are currently experiencing.

Providing support for the pandemic-related rise in depression

A recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control report indicates that depression and anxiety are on the rise. The emotional toll of the COVID-19 pandemic is worse than experts projected, with the percentage of respondents reporting depression symptoms three times higher than before the pandemic. Ironically, the very actions that help keep us safe– isolation, quarantine, and staying away from loved ones – also represent some of the best tools for helping people cope with stress and mental health issues.

We have an opportunity to refocus our people on civility and compassion, double down on equity and fairness in our community and our workplaces, and be a force for moving our collective culture back from the edge of brinksmanship

While demonstrating thought leadership is one way to drive positive change and return our nation to more peaceful and prosperous times, practical steps to support our people are also important. Most of our companies cover mental health care through our health plans, and our Employee Assistance Programs(EAP) support employees emotionally through short-term stress. With the vital role these programs now play, this is an excellent time to review these offerings and confirm that they are adequate to meet our employees' current circumstances. For example, does your EAP offer virtual therapy sessions or web-based financial consulting services that your people can easily access despite social-distancing conditions?

Once you have confirmed your EAP is up to snuff, it's time to actively promote it to your employees and their families.

Employers can play a much-needed role in helping to normalize the use of mental health services. Ask your EAP for educational materials to help employees understand how to manage stress effectively and recognize when they may need a professional to navigate their most stressful circumstances.

Share materials and resources via email, or as workplace posters, in newsletters, and as handouts during team start-up meetings. A multi-pronged communications campaign can go a long way to increasing awareness of the supportive mental health resources you provide and making these resources more accessible and widely accepted.

Changing workplace conditions further exacerbate stress and isolation

With a large percentage of our workforce moving from office settings to working from home, many report new workplace challenges. These include shared bandwidth, balancing parenting demands with work, a lack of dedicated workspace, and isolation for those who live alone. Some businesses have compensated for lack of face time by scheduling seemingly endless online meetings via Microsoft Teams or Zoom. But having too many online meetings brings another kind of stress and burnout, as office workers bounce from one online meeting to another with no breaks between.

Companies that rely on their strong culture to hold the workforce together express concern that this may change due to the shift to remote work. Business leaders feel the need to focus on keeping interpersonal connections alive through the pandemic-driven remote work period.

One approach that has worked well for my team has included a deliberate introduction of 'playtime' as a portion of our remote department meetings. This can include anything from a remote scavenger hunt to a game of online "Family Feud" to a virtual escape room. We send lunch to our team using Grubhub gift certificates to order lunch and have it delivered in time for the team meeting. We have even had virtual happy hours to catch up with each other, talk about families, how we are spending our free time, and reconnect with each other personally. 

Pandemic-related shutdowns can seriously strain family finances

Perhaps you've had to furlough some of your staff in response to shifts in demand related to the pandemic. Even if your business was deemed 'essential' and has been fortunate enough to continue operating during the pandemic, your people may well have other members of their immediate household who are experiencing a significant financial impact as a result of the pandemic.

Helping your people understand the financial support they have access to through their EAP is another important way to ease some of the stress they may be experiencing due to these unusual circumstances. Check with your EAP partner to find out how they can help with financial planning and other advisory services they can provide to help your employees navigate financial difficulties. You may also consider supplementing standard EAP financial programs with tailored online workshops specifically designed for your employees.

The benefit of a workshop tailored specifically for your employees is to focus on issues that may be particularly relevant to your unique employees' experiences. For example, our employees have recently experienced a rash of false identity thefts in the form of unemployment claim filings. These can occur regardless of whether an employee experienced a pandemic-related layoff or furlough. Helping associates mitigate these serious yet unexpected financial risks can go a long way toward reducing stress and helping them remain content and productive. In turn, this helps your people feel more committed to you as an employer who actively demonstrates you care.