Story provided by The Muse. Story written by Leah Campbell. Photo provided by Westend61/Getty Images
If you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic, you’re not alone. At least, not according to the Pew Research Center, which found that 73% of Americans are feeling nervous, anxious, or on edge at least one to two days a week. Sixty percent of respondents said they’re having trouble sleeping, and 48% have struggled with feelings of depression.
What the world is experiencing right now is unprecedented in a number of ways, including the far-reaching mental and emotional impact being felt by so many. So if you’re struggling, it’s understandable. You’re in good company with the rest of the world.
But knowing that doesn’t necessarily make it easier to deal with. Especially if you’re still trying to work. Research has found that symptoms of depression, for example, can negatively impact work performance and cognitive ability. And stress can impair memory and judgment.
You may feel lucky to still have a job at all right now. But if your mental health has been impacted by the current crisis, you could be struggling to focus and get your job done. If that’s the case, what can you do? Who should you talk to? And what should you say?
1. Understand Your Reaction
As COVID-19 continues to spread, fear and anxiety may also be on the rise. “It would be unrealistic to think anyone is going about their daily life unaffected by the current COVID situation,” says Jennifer Thornton, an executive coach and the founder of 304 Coaching.
Thornton has noticed varying degrees of stress in herself and each of her team members and says that responses to that stress may be different for everyone. While some may find comfort in seeking out a sense of purpose or new project, others may come to realize they need to make some changes or take time off to cope with this new normal. It’s important to know that you’re not alone in what you’re feeling right now, but you may differ from your coworkers in what you need to best get through it.
You may also be afraid of asking for help or accommodations at a time when so many people are facing layoffs and so many companies are implementing cost-cutting measures in order to stay afloat. It’s difficult enough to have a conversation like this under normal circumstances and knowing there are already fewer resources available can make it even harder. Still, honoring your mental health is important. You’re no good to anyone if you don’t take care of yourself first. So yes, this is hard—but there are ways to make it easier.
2. Identify Your Needs
You may not be able to immediately recognize the ways your mental distress is hindering you—let alone identify what would truly help you get things done.
That’s why Thornton says it’s important to pay attention to how you’re currently responding to the work you’re doing. “Do you feel better when working on top priority or new projects?” she asks. “Is there work that is triggering your mental health because it’s always bothered you, but with the heightened stress, you have an even stronger reaction to it?”
Understanding which aspects of your work may be increasing your stress levels right now will allow you to identify what you might actually need to make it better. Perhaps a reduced work schedule would help you. Maybe you need to stop doing quite so many Zoom meetings. Or it’s possible you’d do best not having to interact with customers for the time being.
Organizational psychologist and global talent management consultant Irina Cozma, PhD says that flex time is one of the most important accommodations employees can ask for right now. Flexible work hours can be especially helpful for employees tasked with managing full households quarantined together, as well as those who feel overwhelmed and may need to take more breaks. “A flexible schedule will also allow people to do shopping at hours that are not too crowded, which could be yet another source of stress,” Cozma says.
Of course, not every industry has the ability to offer flexible hours or approve other changes you request. But you won’t know whether or not your company can provide the exact accommodations you’re looking for if you don’t ask. And you can’t ask if you haven’t first taken the time to figure out what it is, exactly, that might help.
3. Consider Your Company’s Track Record
“As leaders,” Thornton explains, “we must be compassionate and recognize everyone’s journey is uniquely theirs and we must place mental health as a priority.” The problem, unfortunately, is that not all companies have the same view.
“Companies who are consistently compassionate about the mental well-being of their employees are showing great efforts to be even more conscious about the impact of COVID,” Thornton says. But, she adds, “Leaders that have struggled with understanding mental health in the past may continue to struggle during this time.”
How your company has responded to issues of mental health in the past matters because your approach may need to be different if they haven’t historically been understanding. Companies with a solid track record of taking their employee’s mental health into consideration likely already have plans in action for providing accommodations as needed—which means all you have to do is reach out to your manager and get the conversation started. But if you aren’t confident that will be the case, you may need to take additional steps to protect yourself.
4. Decide Who to Talk To
How big of a company do you work for? What’s your relationship with your manager like? Do you have a dedicated HR team you’ve interacted with in the past on personal matters? Your answers to all of these questions, combined with your understanding of your company’s culture, will play a role in deciding who you should approach with your request for accommodations.
Employment lawyer Jeffrey Kmoch—who served as in-house HR law counsel for JPMorgan Chase & Co before launching his own practice—says that most companies would prefer employees work directly through HR as opposed to management in situations such as this. He explains that not all managers are trained in dealing with mental health issues, and that the HR team will generally be brought into the discussion regardless. He further suggests putting requests in email in order to start a paper trail.
But while this may be true of larger companies, smaller ones don’t always have a dedicated HR team. And if you have an especially good working relationship with your manager, you may feel the need to start there. If you’re confident your boss will be open to your requests, a quick call to discuss your situation may be all that’s necessary. But if you expect pushback, follow Kmoch’s advice and protect yourself by involving HR from the start and putting your requests in writing.
5. Make a Plan
It’s easy in a moment of overwhelm to react quickly instead of thinking through your next steps. If you’ve been experiencing high anxiety or bouts of depression you may be on the verge of calling your boss in tears. But if you think you may need accommodations, or even a break, it’s important to be smart about how you approach those requests.
Prior to approaching either HR or your management team, Thornton suggests writing down specifically what you want to convey. “Being clear on your own needs will make the conversation flow better. If you believe you can continue to work successfully with some modifications, bring those ideas to the conversation.”
She also says that the earlier you can have this conversation, the better. “Don’t wait until you are at a breaking point. Early and honest conversations are always the best conversations to have.”
6. Ask for Accommodations
If you’ve decided you would rather have this conversation by phone or video call as opposed to entirely by email, send HR and/or your manager a quick email letting them know what you’d like to discuss so that they don’t feel blindsided. You might want to try something like, “I’ve been having some anxiety due to the pandemic and it’s impacting my ability to work. Could we set up a 30-minute meeting to discuss possible solutions?”
By sending an email like this you not only let them know what the conversation will be about, but you also start that paper trail Kmoch mentioned. Once you’re on the call, you can explain your current mental state, outline the accommodations you’ve already determined might help, and negotiate a plan that works for all sides.
You might say:, “I’ve been experiencing a great deal of anxiety and it’s been making it difficult for me to concentrate during the day when I’m also now tasked with caring for my kids. Would it be possible for me to adopt a flexible work schedule for the time being so that I can focus on work when I have the ability to do so? I’ve sketched out an initial plan for what it could look like.”
7. Recognize If You Need a Break
In some cases, you may come to believe accommodations aren’t what you need right now—time off is. Cozma says she has a client who has long suffered from chronic anxiety and panic attacks. “Both COVID-19 and the economic situation created this roller-coaster that exacerbated her mental equilibrium to a degree that her arm got numb and she just could not continue her intense sales job anymore.”
This client went to HR and her manager requesting time off and Cozma says both were very understanding. She was initially given a week off. When that week passed and she realized she still wasn’t ready to return, Cozma says. “There was no problem extending her time off to one more week.”
It’s important to remember this may not be the case in all workplaces. But it is perhaps an encouraging example of an employee being honest with their HR and management team, and getting what they need to get healthy as a result.
8. Protect Yourself Legally
Maybe you’re afraid your company won’t be as understanding as the company Cozma’s client works for. Or perhaps you’ve already tried to request accommodations but were told this is an all-hands-on-deck situation and your company doesn’t have the ability to provide additional supports right now.
If you’ve been made to feel guilty for requesting what you need to stay healthy, or if you fear that might be what happens when you do, there are ways to protect your job and your mental health at the same time.
Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, Kmoch says he’s been getting a lot of calls from workers who have concerns, but are reluctant to approach management for fear of retaliation. If you’re worried about retaliation yourself, his advice is to try to pose your requests in a way that allows you to be protected by federal law—specifically the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Each of these provide protections for anxiety, depression, and other mental health struggles—especially if you’ve sought medical treatment.
“If you have a medical condition that required treatment, try to associate it,” Kmoch says. “Make it clear they understand, ‘I have a health condition and that’s why I need this.’” Of course, this needs to be a true statement. Kmoch warns that if you do request accommodations under these acts, your company may request medical documentation. “Many companies won’t,” he says. “But they can.”
If you haven’t been diagnosed in the past, but you feel strongly that you’re struggling with your mental health now, a call to your family physician or a virtual appointment with a therapist can help you to get the documentation you’ll need to ensure you’re protected.
9. Follow Up
Whatever strategies you decide to try, you should make a point of checking in with your HR and management teams after a week or two to let them know how things are going. This way you can continue to work on a plan together if you’re still having trouble, or you can let them know if the accommodations have helped.
It’s important that you do what you can to take care of yourself mentally and emotionally as well as physically during this pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and American Psychological Association (APA) have both compiled mental health resources for anyone who may need help getting through this trying time.
You are not alone. In fact, you may learn your management team is experiencing similar difficulties. But you won’t know—and won’t be able to make your own situation better—until you have that discussion. Remember that “your mental health should always be a priority. Never let shame keep you from having an honest conversation with your supervisor,” Thornton says.
So sit down, think about what you need, put it on paper, and then reach out. You may find you’re able to give your job so much more once you’ve taken care of yourself first.