The coronavirus pandemic has forced tens of millions of employees across the U.S. to work from home. While this will save lives by limiting the transmission of COVID-19, it also poses significant challenges for employees’ well-being.
How can companies support the health of their employees – many of whom have never before worked from home for a significant amount of time?
As researchers in the area of human resource management, we have studied companies’ ability to adopt and encourage practices to improve employees’ well-being.
Here are four research-backed ways we believe companies can promote employees’ health and well-being during this crisis.
1. Provide more flexibility
Before the pandemic, only about 5% of the U.S. workforce worked from home on a regular basis.
But working from home affects every employee differently depending on their responsibilities and living situations. For example, with widespread school and childcare closures, workers with younger children need to balance keeping them occupied while trying to keep up with work tasks. And the same goes for those with elder-care responsibilities.
That’s why employer flexibility to match specific employee needs is crucial.
A good step is for companies to require managers to have open conversations with their employees about how and when work can be accomplished – without intruding on employees’ privacy – and offer a wider range of options for flexibility, such as more leeway when assignments need to be turned in or adjusting work hours per day to allow more time to care for children and others.
It’s also important for this order to come from the top because not all managers view flexibility positively.
For workers in states where they can still head to the office, companies should also offer more flexibility, such as reduced hours, a compressed work week or even a leave of absence.
And employees should not be passive. Let your managers know what kinds of flexibility you need to balance your work and home lives.
2. Encourage and host virtual social time
For workers who have never worked from home, social isolation will be deeply felt. It’s hard to replicate daily interactions with co-workers, casual encounters by the water cooler or after-work drinks.
Research has found that having such reciprocal, supportive interactions with work colleagues is linked to worker well-being. But companies should not assume this will happen naturally, especially when people are feeling down.
Employers should encourage their workers to find time to have virtual coffees, lunches or even happy hours with their colleagues. And managers could continue to mark birthdays or other milestones with video conference calls and other methods.
3. Train for online collaboration
It’s easy to presume that employees will be effective working remotely as long as they have the right technological tools, such as video cameras and chatting software.
But research has found it’s not that simple, and conflicts can emerge as a result of the different ways people prefer to communicate and use technology. Some workers may prefer communicating over email, while others react most quickly to chat programs like Slack. For others, the best way to reach them is with an old-fashioned phone call. Some of our own work has found that remote work can exacerbate the problem, particularly in times of stress.
To address this, companies can offer web-based sessions on the most effective ways to work online. During these sessions, leaders can establish ground rules for the use of collaborative technology and build awareness of individual and cultural differences in communication, including preferences for email, phone calls and conference calls.
4. Foster positive coping
The pandemic is increasing people’s fear and stress levels, which can have fatal consequences.
Our research has shown that people use a wide variety of coping strategies when they are in a new and stressful situations. Some, such as increased alcohol consumption, are not very healthy.
In normal times, companies can offer a variety of ways to support employee mental and physical health, from social activities to gym memberships. But with workers at home and the fitness centers closed, companies need to redirect their efforts to foster employee well-being.
We’ve found that practicing mindfulness – focusing your attention to be fully present in the moment – can be especially beneficial to employees’ mental health, even among highly stressed nurses and other health care workers. Companies can help – and some already are – by offering tutorials on mindfulness, webinars on resilience, reminding workers of their employee assistance programs or simply suggesting workers go for a walk.
Consistent and clear communication about health risks, preventative measures and available resources is the best way for company leaders to keep their employees safe and foster well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic.[You need to understand the coronavirus pandemic, and we can help. Read our newsletter.]
Helen De Cieri has received funding from WorkSafe Victoria (Australia) for research projects related to workplace safety and health.
Paula Caligiuri does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.