It’s back to the job for many New Jersey workers. But other than for those employers in a state of denial, most understand reintegrating the workforce is not a flip of a switch. Attention to physical and mental health and safety, so closely tied to productivity and morale, will forever be part of the workplace.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, many employers reported their businesses suffering from the malaise of low morale and low employee engagement. They cited a lack of meaningful strategies to address these issues even as their bottom lines were being negatively impacted, according to a survey by the Employers Association of New Jersey.
Months into a pandemic that brought businesses to a standstill and disrupted daily routines, these same employees are now coming back to the same jobs.
What is the state of mind?
Roughly one-quarter of American workers feel that COVID-19 has threatened their job security and opportunities, according to a survey of 1,099 workers from the Society for Human Resource Management. While being asked back to work is certainly a good sign for workers feeling insecure about their employment, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised both employers and employees that fear and anxiety about COVID-19 and other strong emotions can be overwhelming, and workplace stress can lead to burnout and related health conditions.
Workplace stress is real
Before the pandemic, the World Health Organization reported that high levels of stress at work were causing unprecedented occupational illnesses. One in three employees stated that they had left a job because of mental health-related issues and 89% believed that the work culture should support employee mental health.
More than one-third of Americans (36%) say COVID-19 has had a serious impact on their mental health and most (59%) feel COVID-19 is having a serious impact on their day-to-day lives.
Parents, especially moms, are experiencing negative health impacts due to the stress and worry sparked by COVID-19, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. With uncertainties about health and safety conditions at school, the monthly tracking poll shows that at least one-fourth of parents with children who normally attend school say that worry and stress related to the coronavirus has had a “major” negative impact on their mental health (35% of mothers versus 26% of fathers).
Further, when asked whether they have experienced specific adverse effects due to worry and stress related to the coronavirus, mothers in particular reported struggling with signs of anxiety and stress. Mothers reported sleep disturbances (53%), poor appetite or overeating (46%), headaches or stomach aches (32%), difficulty controlling their temper (25%), worsening chronic conditions (18%) and increasing alcohol or drug use (14%). All told, 69% of moms and 51% of dads reported experiencing one or more of these conditions.
Seven in 10 parents said they worry their child could get COVID-19 at school. But parents also had worries about remote learning at home, and their concerns show the interconnection of education and other social determinants of health. Parents’ top worries about continued at-home learning included the impact on their children’s academic, emotional and social development; the potential they could lose income if they can’t work outside the home; the loss of access to social services for their children through school; not having the technology needed for at-home learning; and their children not having enough to eat.
Insecurity is real
Many suddenly unemployed workers in one of the nation’s wealthiest states have been pushed to the edge of hunger, forced to ask for help for the first time in their lives. Our food banks are working overtime.
And many returning workers will have depleted their savings or increased their debt burden, which we know has a negative impact on productivity and well-being. Prior to the pandemic, the average working family in New Jersey had only $3,000 in retirement savings; 40% of households headed by a 45- to 54-year-old have no savings at all. Several studies have reported that one in five workers lost substantial hours worked because of poor financial planning and limited savings. Many employers were beginning to incorporate financial planning and debt counseling within their wellness programs.
Low morale is real
In interviews, EANJ member-employers described experiencing challenges related to maintaining employee morale. Telecommuting has had a negative impact on morale in some cases. It has also hindered many employers’ capacity for training and business development. Participants also were concerned about handling employee requests to continue working remotely after it is no longer required for the purpose of social distancing.
Further, we know that some workers had decided that they were financially better off receiving emergency unemployment compensation than getting a paycheck. Acting in the short term, employees actually asked to be laid off because many make more money getting an unemployment check than they do working a low wage job. However, we know what prolonged unemployment does to the mind, body and spirit. And we also know that once business and industry adapts to new efficiencies, getting more with less, there will be no going back from lean staffing.
It is likely that telework arrangements will be left in place for some time and, in some cases, may permanently alter how and where work is performed. It has been pointed out that working from home is a privilege for those higher paid employees who can perform work remotely while “essential workers” such as production workers, administrative clerks and others who make less money bear the costs of commuting. How these inherent inequities are reconciled will be important in setting the overall business culture and whether some employees feel less valued than others.
Can employers step up?
COVID-19 has not changed the workplace as much as it has laid bare the lack of worker support and talent management strategies by employers and the lack of information and insight into employee psychology. Our interviews demonstrate that telecommuting presents new mental health issues — stress, anxiety, anger and sadness. Many employer-members have reported taking steps to foster morale but many more are not capable of dealing with employee issues that are perceived as unrelated to the physical workplace, whether that workplace is remote or on-site. But with some imaginative prompting, employees can be engaged to exercise more, drink less and to use telemedicine for behavioral health. Indeed, many employees do not even know their health plan offers telemedicine for behavioral health. Our interviews have shown that the challenge of resolving a crisis can provide some of the most important opportunities to deepen trust and commitment with employees in ways that not only ensure greater well-being for employees, but also position greater business success when the crisis is over. Good employers will always step up.
For case studies and webinars on how good employers are stepping up, visit: https://www.eanj.org/return-work-resources-employers