Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with an employee of a leading California-based cybersecurity company. When asked about their feelings regarding a potential return to work in the coming weeks, they expressed anxiety. More so, they talked about the realities of returning to a work environment that has removed many of the social elements that people enjoy and look forward to, the reality being that many workplaces will now mean masked employees, six feet of distancing, and, well, a closer proximity version of social distancing. In essence, what many employees will be returning to is a work environment that they are not familiar with — if they even return in the near-term at all.

To say COVID-19 has put massive mental health stress on the vast swath of the American population would be a gross understatement. Now, as states in the U.S. methodically reduce quarantine measures, many are realizing that this does not mean a return to normalcy in life or work. Instead, it means a whole new normal that will take time and patience.

As employers grapple with how best to support their workforces’ mental health in preparation for a gradual reduction in COVID-19 restrictions, there are a few areas where they would be best served to focus.

Staying Steady Under Stress

Returning to work means a period of readjustment for everyone. Meanwhile, as leaders look to support their people with this transition, they are dealing with their own stress behind the scenes. Nobody is immune to the cumulative effects of the pandemic that can erode patience and intensify emotions. But leaders can help ease the impact of those emotions on their own management style by embracing two key strategies.

First, managers should anticipate heightened tensions and added risk for conflict in the workplace due to the added stress in people’s lives. Managers can lower the risk of unnecessary conflict within their teams by assessing three things before key interactions and meetings: their own stress level; the stress levels of others involved; and the level of stress they expect the situation to provoke. If the stress level in two or more of those areas is high, managers should consider the pros and cons of rescheduling until cooler heads prevail or changing the scope or amount of content discussed in that moment.

Second, managers should tune in to their own stress levels and take steps to de-escalate their own emotions in order to prevent unwise decisions. Managers can limit their own reactivity by first acknowledging and labeling their emotion (for example, “I’m feeling frustrated right now”). This provides an important pause that allows them to step back, observe what’s happening within themselves in the moment, and make a wise choice about how to proceed. Then, managers should consider ways to feel calmer or more positive. Options could include taking a walk for a change of scenery or a relaxation technique such as deep breathing. Managers who take a moment of peace and respite will be better equipped to make smarter decisions and effectively support their teams.

Arming Managers with Appropriate Mental Health Training

How managers communicate, behave, and lead can have massive repercussions across an organization — especially during a time of heightened stress. That is why training for managers should be a critical part of planning for every organization, especially during a time of crisis, and this includes mental health–specific training.

There are a few things employers should prioritize when training managers on mental health best practices in the workplace, including:

  • Validating the reality that this is a hard time for everyone and that leadership recognizes and understands that.
  • Educating them on how to spot signs of mental health distress in their teams.
  • Ensuring they know what benefits are available to help employees experiencing mental health challenges and how to appropriately offer those benefits.
  • Creating a psychologically safe environment in the workplace by modeling openness and a willingness to talk about self-care and emotional wellness.

Promoting and Encouraging Self-Compassion

As employees return to work, they will undoubtedly face unanticipated challenges that lead to more frustration. People may be surprised that they aren’t able to immediately bounce back to 100 percent productivity just because they’re back in the workplace. Ordinary decisions, such as determining the best approach to commute to work safely or finding childcare arrangements, may now be significant sources of stress.

When readjustment hurdles arise, managers need to model the behaviors they want their teams to embrace and offer much-needed compassion. Research shows that when people respond to their own disappointment or frustration with the same compassion that they would extend to a friend or close colleague in a similar situation, it can pre-empt the kind of pessimism that diminishes motivation, while enhancing perseverance and personal growth.

It is also important for managers to remind their people that setbacks and difficult emotions are universal to the human experience. There’s nothing abnormal about falling short or feeling discouraged. Many others — including colleagues — are likely feeling the same way at this moment. This type of validation helps people to feel less alone during critical moments and better able to move past negative feelings without the added baggage of shame or guilt.

As companies prepare to bring employees back to the workplace over time, they need a strategic plan to effectively respond to workers’ mental health needs. Embracing these mental health best practices will help your organization successfully achieve a transition back to a new “normal” in the workplace.