How can we better cope with the pandemic’s impact on our employees’ mental health?

How can we better cope with the pandemic’s impact on our employees’ mental health?
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A prolonged period of working remotely is impacting the mental well-being of many employees. The ongoing pandemic continues to exacerbate the situation.

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Because of COVID-19, quarantine and social isolation measures have led companies to implement full time remote work within a short time frame.  

There are increasing studies that show over the months that this is creating a negative impact – many employees simply feel stressed, exhausted and disconnected. Little is known if they are struggling with work and burning out.

What can companies do? iTNews Asia speaks with David Lambert, Principal, Asia Pacific, Medallia, to understand more.

iTNews Asia: How serious do you see this as a problem for businesses in Asia? Why should they be concerned?

Mental health is a prevalent health problem in Asia and this is exacerbated by COVID-19, which has brought forth new challenges and changes in the working life, worsening the existing psychological toll.

According to Research Gate, the pooled prevalence of anxiety and depression in Southeast Asia was 41.3% and 34.1%, respectively in 2020.

However, most companies in Asia do not see the full extent of this issue, because they have never asked employees and assume that everything is going well because employee voices are hidden.

In Asia especially, there is still a social stigma attached to speaking up about one’s mental health issues. Companies and CEOs can play a key role in reducing this stigma by initiating conversations with employees and letting them know that is perfectly acceptable not to feel alright, and that the company is here to help.  

For this to happen, there has to be a mindset shift. Companies need to acknowledge that managing employees’ mental well-being is not merely a checkbox or a nice to have. Rather, a company’s performance is largely dependent on the employees’ well-being.  

A tired, frustrated and stressed workforce affects morale and productivity. In contrast, a fully engaged and invested workforce is the key to unlocking competitiveness.

iTNews Asia: What are the signs that employers must take note of that indicate their employees may not be okay?

It is important to pay attention to what employees are saying, doing or not doing, and how they are feeling. This is tough because some people undergo a range of emotions, from feeling depressed or suicidal, to just not being ok today for a reason. 

- David Lambert, Principal, Asia Pacific, at Medallia

In addition, spotting the signs early may be tricky as people react differently to stress. Some red flags to look out for are severe mood swings, low productivity, and a decrease in work quality from someone who usually performs well otherwise.

If employees withdraw from social situations such as frequently skipping out on meals, or have not taken a paid leave in a long while, these are cues for companies to check up on their employees. Unfortunately, many companies have not gone deep enough in the understanding these signs and cues.

iTNews Asia: With remote working expected to continue in many organisations, what can employers and HR do?

The key is to build a safe and encouraging environment for employees to voice their feelings, and be assured that it is perfectly normal to show vulnerability. This involves a cultural change, starting from the CEO openly discussing about mental well-being.

While most companies have mental health-related reading materials and resources for employees, these are often hidden as obscure links within the intranet. Rather than prominently featuring sales training materials on the intranet, companies should rethink the approach by focusing on employees’ well-being.

Annual employee feedback surveys are common, but this is not enough, particularly with the lack of in-person interactions now. Sending quarterly or ad hoc pulse surveys to address concerns as and when they arise, or when there are unexpected events, such as a restructuring or a change in manager, will enable deeper on-ground listening.

It will be a big miss if the survey questions revolve around the company. They should speak to a specific ask, that is focused on employees’ mental well-being. Areas to be covered may include the level, drivers and causes of stress. To protect the authenticity of findings, and extract more accurate and actionable data, employees’ identity can be kept anonymous during the survey.

What we have found over the years is that contrary to popular belief amongst companies, employees are more than willing to share feedback if there is a safe communication channel to do so. Many employers are often surprised at the amount of engagement and creative solutions they source from the ground. 

iTNews Asia: Medallia is pioneering new ways to integrate the employee experience and using AI to make predictive insights. How can technology help detect and help address employees’ mental wellbeing? 

Technology provides a judgement-free zone for employees to candidly share their feelings, and for employers to recognise signs that their staff need help.      

Experience management software, which is designed to catch trigger words or upset tones of voice, can analyse and look for signals that indicate mental health risks. From survey feedback to daily interactions over messages and calls, text, video and voice analytics can be applied to identify negativity and issues from massive data sets.

For instance, if an employee says he is facing ‘financial hardship’, ‘I can’t pay my rent,’ ‘I’m late on my bills’, these will be automatically flagged out for immediate response.  

Additionally, AI can identify any type of negativity in a response, even if it is not in the existing set of crisis-related topics. In other words, AI is able to bubble up issues that a company may not even have thought of. This is very important, given the evolving COVID-19 situation.

iTNews Asia: Can Medallia share some examples of how your approach has helped companies globally? What have been the benefits, and how has the employee experience been improved?  

To fully extract the value of integrating AI into employee experience, companies need to remain invested in signals-rich and action-oriented programs across different feedback channels.

Medallia has worked with several global organisations. Take Walmart for example, where it usually takes months to distribute a global employee survey, we have helped them speed up the process to create a more “real-time” feedback model.  This new approach is designed to let Walmart survey, analyse, and act on data more quickly.

Another example is Medallia ourselves. Our technology enables us to measure employee experience in all areas including onboarding, work-life balance, benefits, growth and development, and manager relationships. We use the feedback from our employees to understand what is driving employee engagement and which investments we need to make to improve.

To help support employees during the COVID-19 pandemic, we introduced new programs including a virtual fitness benefit, flexible work schedules, remote learning support hours, and caregiver support hours. 

iTNews Asia: Wouldn’t it be easier if employer and HR can always do face-to-face meetings with employees to find out what’s causing their stress? Wouldn’t this be much more effective? 

In Asia, there is still a stigma associated with mental health. Employees are reluctant to open up to their bosses as there is always an inherent fear of jeopardising their jobs.

Technology bridges this gap. According to a report from Workplace Intelligence and Oracle, 82% say that AI is better than humans in providing support. 68% say they would prefer interacting with a robot on issues like stress and anxiety, as opposed to a human manager. 

Experience management technology can act as non-intrusive listening posts to collect non-bias data, analyses mental health risk and routes alerts in real time to the appropriate responders.

With technology taking over more parts of the employee lifecycle, how do we retain the 'human element' in our relationships, while leveraging technology to support our people decisions?

It starts from the CEO and the management team walking the talk and showing that it is ok not to be ok. Practising vulnerable leadership and openly discussing about well-being will enhance trust and rapport, and create more authentic on-ground conversations. Technology and data are supporting tools to help organisations enhance employee experience and make more informed decisions.  

 

David Lambert is Principal, Asia Pacific at Medallia, a business that looks at the customer, employee, citizen and patient experience. The company was recently named a Leader in Gartner’s first Magic Quadrant for Voice of the Customer.

To reach the editorial team on your feedback, story ideas and pitches, contact them here.
© iTnews Asia
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