As news of vaccines come to light and rollouts of potential solutions tentatively begin, it seems that an end to this active pandemic phase may be in sight. But that doesn’t mean our COVID-19 response will come to an end. No, in fact, as we hopefully enter a post-pandemic phase in the near future, we have to prepare for what may be an equally challenging situation for many. As Human Resources professionals (and really, any human), it’s no secret that we’ve been challenged and changed in significant ways this year, and we’ve developed creative solutions, re-prioritized, and pivoted to address those challenges. The post-pandemic phase will require this same kind of energy and focus as we leverage what we’ve learned and continue to learn in order to improve our workplaces and to prepare for how to best support and nurture our most important resources – our employees.
So, what are some of the things you can do to continue to pivot to success during these unfamiliar times?
If you have not already been focusing on employee mental health, now is the time. Employees and families are likely experiencing mental health struggles like never before – many are balancing family and work in new and different ways, navigating financial challenges, fighting physical health concerns for themselves and others, and unfortunately, working through grief. These factors impact our employees’ personal and professional lives hindering their ability to work, to be productive, and to be actively engaged. As HR professionals, this is a key opportunity to listen to your staff. Really listen. Be there for them and allow them the opportunity to talk through their issues, referring them to mental health professionals as needed. Do whatever is necessary to show them you are there and are present, provide resources for success, and ensure that you are taking care of your own mental health. You can’t be there for others if you are struggling yourself. These times have been understandably challenging for everyone, including HR.
Invest in long term benefits.
Post-acute COVID-19 Syndrome issues have already come to the surface. As employers and HR professionals, it’s imperative to recognize that these lingering effects do exist and consider what we can do about them. In a blog post for the Harvard Medical School, Dr. Anthony Kamaroff references these long-term impacts on post-COVID “long haulers” (or those suffering from “long COVID” as it is called in the UK), estimating that 50% to 80% of those infected with COVID-19 may develop lingering symptoms, some of which are debilitating. The Mayo Clinic also describes the symptoms as similar to those recovering from SARS with a chronic fatigue syndrome that does not improve with rest.
In order to remain attractive employers, our benefits must fluctuate to meet our employees’ needs. One of the most important things HR professionals can do is to provide benefits that will allow staff to recognize these potential disabilities and handle them appropriately. Accommodations and short-term and long-term disability benefits may be incredibly valuable to those dealing with these types of issues and should be considered for the potential lingering impacts.
Invest in mental health and wellness resources.
No one should be expected to “go it alone.” As mental health challenges and concerns continue throughout the pandemic, this is a key opportunity to bring in professional resources to train your managers on how to handle these situations, and/or to have a resource to outsource the counseling/therapy to for expert advice. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2019 Benefits Survey, 79% of employers are offering Employee Assistance Programs, but many report an average plan usage close to 5%. If you are not offering an EAP, consider including it in your list of benefits or review your Telehealth program, as they may include mental health services you can promote.
If you already offer an EAP, review your program and find ways to promote and encourage participation. EAPs have evolved in their offerings to help manage a wide range of complex mental health issues as well as how the services are delivered. For example, some EAPs include onsite counseling services in addition to training for managers on handling mental health concerns in the workplace. Also, due to the pandemic, many EAPs are providing additional resources, including online support groups to specifically assist with mental health issues associated with working remotely. Utilize these professional resources at hand, but remember to “Be Present” and don’t just refer and abandon your employees. Follow up with referrals to make sure they were able to make the contact and receive necessary services for optimal success.
Implement creative staffing alternatives.
The opportunities here are endless. Consider allowing continued telecommuting, the use of contract workers, increased part-time or job-share opportunities, and/or institute adapted schedules. For example, consider implementing a four-hour lunch mid-day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., allowing for a focus on kids’ schooling during the mid-day while shifting the work focus to the early morning and late evening times. This is a key opportunity to embrace non-traditional solutions for non-traditional staffing challenges. All of these options (and more) can be compelling solutions to keep our organizations staffed while meeting the needs of individuals. Even before the pandemic, we saw an increase in contract or “gig” workers, and this trend continues to explode as employers try to fill voids in their workplace. Not all employers can allow remote work opportunities, so many HR professionals are facing the need for creative solutions to assure a safe and healthy workplace while meeting their employees’ personal needs.
Value empathy among team members.
Having empathy and the ability to cultivate it within your workplace has been a trending critical HR leadership skill for the last few years. This trend could not be more on target for the challenges predicted for the rest of this pandemic, both before and after a vaccine. Empathy allows for truly open communication and open dialogue when difficult times present themselves. What empathy does not mean is that someone “gets away” with not doing work or positively contributing to the workplace. Productivity must prevail, but empathy encourages staff to recognize when issues are arising and to address the root cause to find a viable solution, especially when dealing with performance concerns. Managers need to be able to address the issues, staff and coworkers need to be comfortable discussing them, and human resources must be present to understand when to get involved.
Now more than ever, HR professionals must put their creative minds forward to address what is going to continue to be a trying time for employees. Our hope for the pandemic to be over will inevitably lead to post-pandemic issues that we are just beginning to get our arms around. Preparation coupled with creativity and flexibility will continue to be the critical components for all organizations to successfully navigate to and through the post-pandemic phase.
Special thanks to Patti Dunham, MBA, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP for contributing to this edition of our Emerging Issues in HR!
During these uncertain times, be sure to check out our COVID-19 Employer Resources for webinars, resource guides, our Return to Work Guide, and more to help you navigate your business through the challenges you are facing.