Dr. Angela Hall: How to maintain mental health in the workplace, even in the midst of a pandemic

May 11, 2020 - Liz Schondelmayer

With most of our jobs comes a certain level of stress. Between work that needs to be done and deadlines that need to be met, most of us have felt pressure and strain at some point in our professional lives. Especially given the current COVID-19 crisis, many employees are feeling this stress now. 

However, too much stress can take a serious toll on employees’ mental health, ultimately leading to burnout, exhaustion and severe health concerns. Michigan State University social scientists and Human Resources and Labor Relations expert Dr. Angela Hall (pictured left) discusses ways employees and employers can create a positive work environment where mental health is prioritized - whether employees are in the workplace or working from home.

Mental health, work and COVID-19

The current COVID-19 pandemic has added another dimension to workplace stress, causing many workers to relocate while those deemed “essential” to face potentially dangerous conditions. In the midst of the crisis, Dr. Hall urges employers and bosses to check in with their employees while providing the utmost empathy and flexibility. 

For essential employees, Dr. Hall advises leadership to “make sure that necessary safety materials are readily available. Personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, face masks and proper social distancing measures are a must.”

“If your people are working remotely, don't forget about them,” Dr. Hall adds. “Check in on them for business purposes, but also check in on them for a friendly hello as well. Be a resource. And remember the social side of things - human beings are social creatures, and doing things like a virtual happy hour or an employee pet show will keep people connected.”

For employees

Your work and your mental health are innately connected. According to Dr. Hall, our job is central to our sense of identity. “The means that when we're doing well at our jobs, we feel better about ourselves,” says Dr. Hall. “But it also goes the other way around.”

Dr. Hall frames the connection between work and mental health in the context of the Theory of Conservation of Resources, which states that our mental energy is finite. “This means that the mental energy you devote to work, you can't give to other things, like taking care of your family members or taking care of yourself,” Dr. Hall explains. 

Feeling too much stress and exerting too much mental energy at work can lead to burnout for employees and make it impossible for them to keep up with important aspects of their personal lives, which will thus increase stress at work.

The consequence of this cycle? According to Dr. Hall, this can lead to a decrease in productivity, an increase in tardiness and absences and possible serious health consequences resulting from stress, strain and exhaustion. 

For employees struggling with workplace stress and subsequent mental health decline, Dr. Hall shares some advice for addressing the issue with workplace leadership. “First of all, if an employee is willing to disclose a mental health issue, they need to realize that they don't have to disclose more information than they’re comfortable with,” says Dr. Hall. “They can just give the minimum context needed to explain why they’re requesting an accommodation.”

Dr. Hall also emphasizes that getting help sooner is better. “Employees should go to their bosses sooner rather than later when they're starting to see that their mental health is impacting their performance,” advises Dr. Hall. 

She also recommends reaching out to the human resource department to find if there are any mental health resources  available through the company, as many offer support for employees who are seeking services. 

For employers

As a caveat to her advice for employees, Dr. Hall emphasizes the importance of leadership to be accessible and approachable for mental health concerns, as discrimination and stigma still exist against people with mental health issues - despite the inclusion of mental illnesses in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

For leadership looking to take a proactive approach to employee mental health, Dr. Hall shares ways that employers can recognize burnout in employees before the employee initiates the conversation. “If you're seeing any changes in behavior, reduction in productivity or quality of work, absences, calling in sick, being late, having unexplained gaps, running late on assignments, those are all indicators that an employee may have some underlying mental health struggles,” says Dr. Hall.

To avoid burnout entirely, Dr. Hall suggests allowing employees to structure and organize their own work projects, giving them the opportunity to socialize during their workday and making sure they have the necessary tools and resources to complete the tasks assigned to them to avoid unneeded stress.

Most importantly, Dr. Hall recommends that those in leadership ascribe to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which is a concept in the psychology field stating that the employees perform best when they are under the perfect amount of stress - enough to keep them motivated and productive, but not so much that they burnout. 

“Employers should apply enough stress to get their employees to peak performance, but if they’re a good leader, they will be able to recognize when the employee has reached that plateau and stop increasing the pressure,” explains Dr. Hall.

Above all, according to Dr. Hall, mental health in the workplace comes down to communication and empathy - voicing and understanding mental health needs, and creating a flexible, supportive atmosphere for work teams to flourish.