WFH Tips for Your Mental Health in a Pandemic: Q&A with James Pratt Part 2

What can employers do to help from a mental health perspective?

The first thing that comes to mind is making sure that you are highlighting existing resources that can help. For example, a lot of companies have an Employee Assistance Program, or EAP, which often includes some amount of access to a counselor or therapist. Make sure employees know about that resource. And make sure they know that mental health is covered by the health plan and what the co-pays are for it. The likelihood is that it is covered – perhaps unlimited number of sessions – because it has to be under the Affordable Care Act.

With all of the uncertainty around us, communication is especially important right now because people are seeing lots of companies laying off employees. If you are considering layoffs, I think there is a lot of value in saying, “Hey, things are rough, we’re looking at our financial plan, and we think we may need to make some reductions. We’re thinking it might be this size of reduction and we’re going to have an answer for you by day X.” But do what is right for your company and the right thing for your culture.

There are different directions you can take. I know some companies that have given people the option to take a pay cut. One of the companies that I previously worked for, Gravity Payments, asked employees for ideas to avoid layoffs. One idea the team had was voluntary pay cuts. That was a way of everybody coming together and finding a way to solve this problem, rather than doing it in the paternalistic way of deciding to lay people off.  I hear it’s worked out pretty well and they haven’t had to lay anyone off.

There are new resources that you could offer. For example, you can bring in an external speaker to talk about how to maintain your mental health right now. I’ve done numerous sessions for companies already on that topic. There are also a number of mental health apps out there, like Modern Health, Bravely, Ginger, Heard – that can help your employees get access to counselors, therapists, coaches and the like. I would definitely explore those apps.

From a manager’s perspective, I would encourage them to check in regularly – every few days – just on a social, human level. Not a scheduled one-on-one to talk about projects, try to open up a safe space for them to talk about what’s going on by sharing your experiences.  I think that shows that you care, creates a connection and could help you flush out any potential issues that someone is having.

It’s possible someone is having a difficult time going through this.  Look for behavior in people that is way outside of their norm because that can indicate they’re under a lot of stress. If somebody’s usually really happy but suddenly they’re really down or grouchy, then this is something worth asking about because something has changed. They might not tell you or they might lie about it, but at least you asked. And, no, you’re not a counselor or therapist – and you don’t have to be – you’re just showing human concern to a friend.

For those employees that have experienced an unexpected layoff, what tips can you offer to help them through this time?

Here’s a question : 12 weeks after you got laid off or got a promotion and a raise, in which case do you think you’re happier?  The answer is neither, it takes 12 weeks for the impact of an emotional event like that to return to norm.  I say this to say that those feelings you have right now will, for the most part, subside.  We think of getting laid off as a catastrophic event – it is a very stressful event – but know that you’ll be okay.

Second, give yourself a few minutes to process what happened. When we’re under a lot of stress we don’t necessarily make good decisions. Give yourself a week off and treat it like a holiday: Do whatever you want, whenever you want – within the boundaries of your routine – and just give yourself time to process those emotions.

There are a number of services out there that specialize in helping people who’ve been laid off connect with work. One that I’m a fan of is a local business called Silver Lining. Particularly for those here in Seattle in tech, you can sign up online and that’s an easy way to get connected with recruiters.  I know their community has exploded over the last few weeks for obvious reasons.  I have a bias that you should always work somewhere you are genuinely excited about, so I’d recommend this as an opportunity to find THE job not A job, but I recognize you might have financial bounds around that.   There are career coaches out there that specialize in helping you land in the right place.  Companies like Dream Job Catcher are an example, although they work with more senior people.

And I would recommend trying to establish a daily routine. Routines and boundaries are really important for your mental health. Once you’re in the job hunting phase, get your desk or job search work space and daily schedule set – and keep those boundaries.

The final thing I would suggest for mental health is to remember it’s not you – getting laid off has nothing to do with you. You’re not to blame. In this particular case, there’s really nothing you could have done to avoid this. You might have a story going about “What if I’d worked harder 6 months ago?”.  Maybe you’d have been performing 10% better but would that have moved you above the line for cuts? Maybe? But probably not.  And don’t worry about “getting laid off stigma”. This is a crazy time and people will understand.  Those that assume you’re a bad employee because you got laid off now … you don’t want to work there anyway.

What about dealing with the added stress of trying to overperform at work so you’re not laid off? Or picking up extra slack from those that have been?

What I would always encourage you to do is focus on the things that you think matter – that you think are important and are going to make a difference. Do the things that you believe make a difference. Trying to go through your career pleasing other people is the road to madness and burnout for most people. If you can work in a way that lets you feel good about what you did – if you get laid off, then it doesn’t matter. That doesn’t mean do things that are totally orthogonal to what your company does or do no work at all. But find the projects that you really believe are important and broadly aligned with what your team is trying to do. And do it really well.

In terms of picking up the extra slack – set boundaries for yourself. For example, decide what hours you’re going to work and stick to it. And then aggressively prioritize what you can get done and how you can get it done in that amount of time. We spend a lot of our lives stressing about things that don’t actually make any difference. Again, if you know what is truly important, then focus on those things and do them well.

Lastly, accept the situation. Accept that this we are living in an odd time and place. Accept that you might get laid off. But, again, no matter what you do none of this is our fault.

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