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Workplace Transitions: Managing a Stressed-out Workplace

April 13, 2021
Interior of an office workspace

Common signs of “distress” are present in the workplace, requiring a nuanced and sophisticated response from employers for both the wellbeing of employees and the company.

By Larry Lee

The negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the collective mental health of the U.S. workforce are likely to linger for months and perhaps years to come. While employers have gotten better at trouble-spotting and working with struggling employees and leadership, when so many individuals have been impacted by uncertainty and fear, the sheer number of mental health struggles in the workplace from COVID-19 has employers asking what they should—and are obligated to—do with a potentially stressed out and depressed workplace?

Every employee’s journey has been different while dealing with the economic uncertainty, problematic juggling acts of family and child care, and the profound impact of new remote workplaces. The glut of all these factors has overwhelmed many employees and employers alike as well as contributed to a measurable decline in mental health and altered personalities.

Stress and Depression Rise

Job stress, anxiety and depression have skyrocketed for employees since March, 2020, despite much of the workforce working from home. According to a July 2020 report in conjunction with Lyra Health, 81 percent of individuals surveyed experienced mental health issues due to the coronavirus pandemic; one in four reported being “significantly” or “extremely” impacted during Spring 2020. Two-thirds of U.S. workers said they were worried about their own future or their family’s future, and 40 percent reported experiencing burnout.

In recognition of a struggling workforce, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) issued guidance in December, 2020, to employees on How to Cope with Job Stress and Build Resilience During the COVID-10 Pandemic. The guidance walks employees through various steps in identifying and reducing symptoms of stress. In addition, work-related pressures may include virus anxiety, shifting responsibilities, job uncertainty, technical difficulties and the challenges of working remotely.

Improper handling of the underlying employee health conditions can lead to poor workplace morale, and worse, claims being filed by unhappy employees. Employers are ramping up a mix of best practices that fully utilize the interactive process for reasonable accommodation when an employee reports non-physical disability. This includes investing in software training and digital tools to teach manager how to pick up on the subtle cues of employees in distress. In situations involving changes in employee behavior, many employers are turning to their employment attorneys to counsel them through case-by-case scenarios while taking steps to reduce the risk of disability claims.

Managing Deteriorating Situations

How should a company manage a deteriorating employee situation within the construct of labor laws and ethics? While each employment situation is unique, there are common considerations for certain situations, two of which are laid out here. Consider training managers and employees to deal effectively with these common scenarios so that appropriate steps are taken to reduce liability.

SCENARIO ONE

Employee situation. Mary Manager is a single mother of three. She performed well and displayed an easy-going manner during her first five years working with the Company. She started at the Company in operations and quickly climbed the ranks to the role of Chief Operating Officer. After surviving COVID-19, Mary’s professional performance has deteriorated as demonstrated by verbal outbursts and hostile email exchanges with her employees, missed deadlines and employee reports of narcissistic behaviors that are counter to a team approach.

Employer response.  Human resources should meet with Mary and go through an informal interactive process. The following basic yet key questions to ask are: “Mary, how are you doing? Is there anything we can do to help?”

HR and Mary should exhaust all possibilities to resolve her workplace issues, including Mary taking time off from work. HR should also consider providing the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) contact information to Mary and her employees. HR should consider in this situation contacting legal counsel on all facts and options so that the Company can determine next steps to reduce potential liability if Mary or one of her employees were to file a claim against the employer.

SCENARIO TWO

Employee Situation. Dave Director has attacked his role of regional vice president of sales with gusto in the past, but recently, after the Company laid off seven out of his 10 employees due to the devastating financial decline of revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic, he has been acting down and depressed. His lack of energy is negatively impacting his ability to manage the remaining three employees in his salesforce. Dave admitted to his direct supervisor, the chief financial officer, that he has been diagnosed with severe anxiety issues (based on a recent therapeutic visit with a psychiatrist) and is medicated on psychotropic medications.

Employer response. The CFO should promptly refer this situation to the HR director, who will likely contact the Company’s workplace attorney. Reports of disability, whether or not it is severe or involves medications, must be handled with care as there are important step-by-step guidelines to follow. In this matter, the interactive process starts with the simple question, “What can we do to help?”

Further, it may be appropriate to request a physician’s note that confirms work restrictions, if any, so that the employer can consider reasonable accommodations for Dave. This may include a flexible work schedule, a quiet work area or involvement with less stressful on-the-job situations. The employer may also want to consider, if reasonably available, offering Dave a less stressful job based upon his present health or condition.

Supporting Mental Health

In addition to training managers and employees to recognize and effectively respond to common distress signals in the workplace, procedures and policies must be rewritten to encompass emerging situations in dealing with potentially stressed out and depressed workers.

Workplace strategies to promote wellness might include:

  • Encourage managers to check-in with their reports face-to-face via video calls on a regular basis and be vigilant to signs of distress, which will be easier to detect as in-person meetings resume.
  • Ensure that the company’s EAP either identifies a central mental health services contact or points employees to the HR director who will provide the most current contact.
  • Identify and communicate to employees a date when management will restart job evaluations, particularly for those positions where compensation is tied to performance. If a reasonable accommodation is under consideration, engage an HR disability expert or employer workplace counsel to help put in place a proper plan and strategy. Should an undue burden exist, these experts can help an employer determine options and make sure the employer considers and takes necessary steps in the event the employer must transition the disabled employee out of the door.

When it comes to managing mental health issues in the workplace, being reasonable and proactive not only protects the employer but improves employee morale, productivity and the company’s financial health. Employers that regularly communicate changes in policy and procedures keep the avenues open for employees struggling with their health during the pandemic.

— Larry Lee is an employment law attorney for employers and shareholder at Jones & Keller in Denver. The views expressed here are the author’s own. He can be reached at llee@joneskeller.com.

This information is not intended as legal advice. Readers should seek specific legal advice before acting with regard to the matters addressed here.