Podcast: Reducing Anxiety Amid the COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis

According to a recent survey, 69% of employees have called the coronavirus pandemic the most stressful time in their entire professional career. And according to Forbes.com workplace contributor and sociologist Dr. Tracy Brower, there is no question that many employees are facing serious challenges with depression and anxiety.

On this podcast, Brower joins XpertHR Legal Editor David Weisenfeld to discuss the crisis and offer tangible ways to reduce stress. She also addresses how managers can help, including understanding mental illness under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Brower has written a book about creating work-life fulfillment and has engaged with many Fortune 500 companies during her career. Some tips include:

  • Maintaining a daily routine;
  • Being grateful for the little things;
  • Setting boundaries (e.g. not talking coronavirus over dinner); and
  • Limiting time reading or watching the news.

Listen Now

Additional Resources

Mental Health and the Workplace

Stress Management

Podcast: Managing Employees During a Global Pandemic


David Weisenfeld: I'm David Weisenfeld for XpertHR.com, published by Reed Business Information and proudly partnered with LexisNexis.

We've all seen firsthand how the COVID-19 crisis is turning the workplace as we knew it on its head. But the much less-publicized crisis with this global pandemic involves mental health. Social isolation, massive job uncertainty, and concerns about the coronavirus itself are shocking employees both in the US and around the world.

So this podcast looks at ways to reduce employees' stress and anxiety with Forbes.com workplace contributor Dr. Tracy Brower. Tracy is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations, which focuses on creating work-life fulfilment. She's also a sociologist and currently a principal with Steelcase's Applied Research Team, and has engaged with many Fortune 500 companies in her career.

Tracy, so glad to have you with us. [0:01:21.8]

Tracy Brower: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it, David.

David Weisenfeld: Tracy, there's certainly no shortage of things to talk about, but before we dive in tell us how you're balancing the increased family time with work these days, with everyone home 24/7. [0:01:37.1]

Tracy Brower: Wow! I'm challenged with it just like I'm sure everyone is. Work is more busy than ever, but my husband and I are soon to be empty-nesters so we're grateful for the time with family. We're playing lots and lots of cards and taking our dog, Truffles, for lots of walks. So we're enjoying the weather as it turns good in Michigan.

David Weisenfeld: Well that sounds good, and glad to hear you're doing well. I've read where 69% of employees, though, say this pandemic is the most stressful time in their entire professional career. And you wrote recently on Forbes.com about a new Qualtrics study on the rising mental health crisis. What jumped out to you the most about that? [0:02:19.9]

Tracy Brower: You know, one of the things I found really, really interesting about that study is that the longer people worked from home the more challenges they reported. So there were general challenges reported, like social isolation and stress and distraction. But the longer they were home, the more likely they were to say that they were experiencing sadness and fatigue.

And so it's interesting. Sometimes we can feel maybe annoyed about our commute or not so thrilled about our office - or maybe we are - but for people who maybe have taken the office for granted, I think we're realizing there's just something about the office. There's something about being together and being in a physical place together working on a common goal that matters to people.

David Weisenfeld: Now do you think that Zoom, which has gotten a lot of attention during these last few weeks, is something that can alleviate that somewhat or is it just not the same, not enough of a substitute? [0:03:16.3]

Tracy Brower: You know, I think that's a great question, and we can do so much work effectively on a remote basis using Zoom and other conferencing capabilities. There is just something special about being elbow-to-elbow when we're in a conference room together, and we're brainstorming or when we're face-to-face in order to see a little bit more complete picture of the non-verbal cues. So I think it's a 'both and,' really about getting together and being face-to-face and the benefits of that relationship-building, and remote work can also work really well for us.

David Weisenfeld: Well you and I are working remotely but many essential workers in healthcare, grocery stores and elsewhere are out there facing risks on a daily basis. Have you seen anything about differences between how essential workers on the frontlines and those working from home are faring when it comes to mental health issues? [0:04:13.3]

Tracy Brower: One of the things that frequently comes up when we look at people's response to work is the extent to which different levels feel different amounts of stress. And so that was one of the things that was discovered in this Qualtrics survey, is that individual contributors and mid-level managers and C-level executives were all feeling similar levels of stress.

But I like the other lens on this question, which is all about purpose. Purpose is about three things:

  • When we feel purpose in our work, we feel a sense of the importance of a bigger picture;
  • We feel a sense that we can contribute to it; and
  • That bigger picture has to be related to people, not just a kind of esoteric, corporate objective of a certain percentage of growth.

The thing that essential workers get is they get that really great sense of purpose. You know, 'I'm doing reach-out work in a grocery store and I'm helping people feed their families,' or, 'I'm delivering essential goods and that's helping people because that delivery is critical.'

On the other hand, essential workers may be facing risks that they didn't sign up for. They didn't expect that working in a retail job, for example, was going to have quite as much risk associated with it.

I think it's a pro and a con. You know, on the one hand you can feel that great sense of purpose that may not feel as evident sitting in your home office. But you're also facing a higher level of risk. So I think we're seeing both sides of that one.

David Weisenfeld: That's absolutely true. And you had a good quote in your Forbes.com story from a friend that preceded COVID-19, where she told you, 'If you're not upset you're not paying attention.' No question it's a very tough time for companies too, but using that quote, are they paying attention to what their workers are going through since they're not seeing them on a daily basis? [0:06:16.2]

Tracy Brower: I think they are. Not all companies and not everywhere, but I believe we're seeing a real resurgence in companies that are realizing the criticality of mental health and staying connected. We're hearing stories many of the companies that were kind of good before are getting better. Some of the ones that may not have been paying as much attention are going to a good level.

I think one of the interesting things that's happening is that increasingly people are turning to their companies as a source of truth. There's so much coming at us, and there's such an influx of information, that a lot of times people are really, really eager for that CEO message or that company that's reaching out giving a sense of how to make sense of things for that particular industry or that particular set of jobs.

And I think one of the other things that's making a difference is that it's kind of the idea of shared pain or shared impact unfortunately. Companies are so significantly impacted in terms of bottom line and the business, and they're sharing that impact with the individuals and the people.

So it's not like one of those situations where we're seeing widespread jobs being lost, but at a business level there isn't as much impact or vice versa. I think the fact that there's so much impact both at the individual and the team and the company and the community levels, that's causing companies to pay attention and realize the extent to which they need to check in on things like motivation and engagement.

David Weisenfeld: Again we're speaking with Dr Tracy Brower, who has her PhD in Sociology and also is a workplace contributor writing about all sorts of issues affecting the workplace for Forbes.com. Tracy, what are some tangible steps that employers and managers can take to support their teams on mental health issues during this crisis? [0:08:21.5]

Tracy Brower: The first thing is to make sure that they're educated. So mentalhealth.gov or the National Institute of Mental Health are really, really good starting points in terms of just getting educated. But also the extent to which they can ask questions and demonstrate empathy is key. I think they can also be really authentic. We always read about the manager who's kind of Teflon, and nothing gets in and nothing gets out. And this really is a moment to be authentic and to let people know that you're going through it as well.

I think another tangible thing that leaders can do is really give people a sense of purpose and accountability. Sometimes I hear managers say, 'You know, I just want to give people space and time, and I don't want to hold them too accountable.' And on the one hand I think that's great. People do need space and time, and they need to make sure that they're taking care of themselves and their families.

But people also need a sense of how their work still matters, how their contribution still matters. And managers can be clear about that. They can bring teams together because our sense of connection together is so important.

And I think finally they can give people a sense of vision and kind of future focus - "We will get through this. This is where our business will be on the other side. We don't know exactly what the future holds, but we know we'll be in it together." Those kinds of future-oriented messages are also really helpful for people.

David Weisenfeld: Yeah, in terms of accountability it's such a tricky time because so many companies are having such difficulties really across the country. And as they experience that I would imagine that at the very moment that employees who are home, caring for relatives or kids, or perhaps even self-quarantined and perhaps might be in a position where they can only give, say, 90%, are being asked to give 120%. So it's a difficult balance, isn't it? [0:10:28.5]

Tracy Brower: It's such a difficult balance, it really is. And you know, I go back to the… I know it's a tried and true metaphor, but the idea of putting your own oxygen mask on before you help others. Remember when we used to travel in airplanes?

David Weisenfeld: Sure.

Tracy Brower: It's a metaphor that's apt because organizations need to realize that people do need extra space to care for themselves and to care for their families, just in really new ways. We're teaching our children potentially, or children that we know, we're caring for loved ones in new ways. We're occupying more roles than we may have occupied before. We're cooking all of our meals at home instead of going out now and then.

And so employees need that opportunity to take care of themselves. But there's also something about the structure and the normalcy that comes from a company saying, "I value your work and I need you to continue to contribute." Those are good things as well.

So just like you said, it's really a balance of both of those.

David Weisenfeld: And in terms of managers, Tracy, trying to find out if one of their employees is having an issue that might need help or attention, how can they ask or look for signs of trouble with everyone remote these days without violating their employees' privacy? [0:11:51.8]

Tracy Brower: You know, I think from a sociological perspective one of the first things leaders need to do is to create a level of trust, to demonstrate empathy, and to kind of have that overall positive climate that they've built. That's kind of foundational, A Number One.

And then what they need to do is just really take cues from employees. Employees say that they really appreciate when managers ask questions and demonstrate that they care about the employees.

Sometimes managers are nervous to do that but you know, they can ask questions in a neutral or a non-invasive way. And then what they can do is take cues from the employee. You know, if they ask a non-invasive question like, "How's it going?" and the employee might not give them a lot of specifics, that might be a cue not to go too much deeper. On the other hand, the employee may give them some cues that suggest that they want to talk a little bit more. And so I think for managers to be really tuned into that is important.

I think also it's important that managers realize that they know their company's policies and they kind of understand ADA. Mental illness is protected under ADA of course. And to really understand also the programs that are available. So the manager doesn't need to feel the pressure to be the only support mechanism. Most organizations have EAP programs, relationship with EAP programs. Sometimes a manager can connect an employee with another person who can be in a mentorship role.

So I think bottom line, those managers want to stay tuned in, continue to demonstrate empathy, and just really take cues from employees about how much to ask.

David Weisenfeld: Tracy, you've written and spoken about how many people out there struggle when it comes to the work-family balance. I can speak firsthand, working from home these days with kids myself. We've managed to set up a nice routine, but certainly it took a couple of weeks and there have been challenging moments for sure. What's your best advice concerning developing a routine? [0:14:05.3]

Tracy Brower: You know, you are so right about routine. I think sometimes we talk about young children and the routine that they need, but we all need it to some extent. Even as adults we are just grown-up children. And so that idea of predictability. We're in the middle of these volatile, uncertain times, and the more we can have that predictability the better.

I think the other thing is that if we can express gratitude, you know. Gratitude is so linked to really positive mental and emotional experience, and so it may feel like there's not a lot to be grateful for right now, but even the little things can count a lot. Like you don't have to do your commute. Or you can show up for work in your sweatpants. Even small things like that.

I think another example is just to really kind of balance the present and the future. Like you want to be really present-focused. What can you do today? What can you do right now that will make a difference? And have enough of kind of that optimistic flavor of, "We're going to get through this. We're going to come out on the other side."

And I think we can't underestimate the importance of setting boundaries. You know, if you're marinating in social media or news media constantly it can really be overwhelming. So it can be helpful to set a boundary, like, "I'm only going to listen to the news the first 30 minutes of the day or the last 30 minutes of the day," or, "We're not going to talk about the pandemic over dinner," or something like that.

And getting enough sleep, moving enough and getting enough exercise, eating healthily. All of those kinds of things feel small, but they're really just very pragmatic things that we need to pay attention to, to ensure that we've got that foundational level of health.

David Weisenfeld: Those are great tips because the news can bring you down if you're not careful these days for sure. And we've been talking a lot about a number of mental health issues, but one I wanted to touch on before we let you go involves addiction, because I find it so interesting that liquor stores in most states have been deemed essential and remain open during this crisis. But with people cooped up are increased addiction concerns on the rise? [0:16:26.1]

Tracy Brower: Yes, absolutely yes. Sociologically speaking, addiction is a very concerning topic right now. One of the things to know is that things like alcohol or vaping or opioid addiction can actually reduce immune strengths, and they can put people at greater risk for some of the pulmonary and respiratory issues that come along with COVID. I'm not a medical doctor, but we know that those are some of the things that are definitely connected.

The other thing, though, is that when we go through cataclysmic events like this people tend to need to save money and so they tend to buy cheaper alcohol and they tend to drink more heavily, just based on the data, based on the evidence that we know. And a lot of times that can increase off-site violence. So if I'm drinking heavily in a bar I may not be as likely to be violent in public, but a lot of times domestic violence or off-site violence can increase when people are drinking at home or drinking in their neighborhoods.

Bottom line, problem drinking can increase in events such as these. 9/11 is a really good example. Katrina is another good example. In both of those cases we saw sociological evidence that drinking problems increased immediately and for as much as two years after.

So one of the things that you see is that there's just a recommendation that you think about what's making you make the choice to drink. You know, you may need that glass of wine at the end of the day and you just want to think about a personal assessment of where you are in that, just from a sociological perspective.

David Weisenfeld: Absolutely. Well in our final minute, Tracy, do you have a thought that you'd like to leave our audience of HR professionals and employers with? [0:18:19.7]

Tracy Brower: Yeah, absolutely. I think we just need to stay strong. We will get through this. We will get through this together. I mentioned other examples of cataclysmic events like 9/11 or Katrina, and one of the things that we saw through those is people just really pulling together, mutual aid, connection and community. And there are terrible, terrible things happening, and we will absolutely get through it. We will get through it together. We will come out on the other side.

And you know, David, we've been focusing on mental health, and so I just want to leave people with the hotline nationally for the National Association of Mental Illness is 800-950-6264. So if people need help, that's a really great place to start. But we'll get through it. We will come out on the other side. We'll never be the same but by goodness we will make it through.

David Weisenfeld: Well thanks for sharing that number Tracy. Really appreciate that. Tracy Brower writes about workplace issues for Forbes.com. She also is a PhD sociologist and the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations. Tracy, our first time having you on the podcast. Really appreciated your insights. [0:19:36.9]

Tracy Brower: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it, really appreciate your questions. It's just an important topic, so thank you.

David Weisenfeld: I'm David Weisenfeld. Continue checking our website regularly for more podcasts on how the coronavirus is affecting the workplace, including The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, plus COVID-19 Plant Closing and Furlough Issues.

The opinions expressed in this program do not represent legal advice, nor should they necessarily be taken as the views of XpertHR or its employees. XpertHR.com is published by Reed Business Information, and is proudly partnered with LexisNexis.

For more information about XpertHR, our subscription offering, or our 50-state Employee Handbook, call us toll free at 1-855-973-7847.