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Managing Employee Mental Health During a Recession

After two years of pandemic lockdowns and an unexpected war breaking out in Ukraine, the global economy has taken a severe hit. Here in the United States, inflation is at the highest it’s been in 40 years and all indicators show that we could be heading into a recession.

In this article, we’ll look at how a recession can impact employee mental health and what public sector employers can do to support their employees during a stressful period like a recession.

How Do Recessions Impact Employee Mental Health?

The 2008 Great Recession lasted 18 months. A mere 13 years later, we face another potential recession.

Based on research by the Association for Psychological Science, not only did the 2008 recession see an increase in depression, anxiety and problematic drug use, but the effects lasted for several years after the recession ended.

Interestingly, it wasn’t only workers who lost jobs that were affected. Those who survived layoffs had to cope with increased workloads and a pervading sense of job insecurity. Some even suffered from survivor’s guilt.

In 2022, many public sector workers are still recovering from pandemic-related stress and now face the added stress of a possible recession. What can public sector organizations do to manage employee mental health wellness during a recession?

Why Does Employee Mental Health Matter?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), one in five U.S. adults lives with a mental illness. These adults don’t only suffer mental health problems at home: they also have to cope with them while at work.

Many employees do not divulge their conditions because of the negative stigma around mental health illnesses. But the implications of mental health problems are felt in the workplace in the form of:

  • Increased absenteeism.
  • Increased levels of conflict and poor interpersonal relationships.
  • Reduced productivity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), depression hampers a person’s ability to complete physical job tasks about 20% of the time and reduces cognitive performance about 35% of the time.

That’s why it’s important for employers to understand how mental health impacts the workplace and put strategies in place to support struggling employees.

How Can Public Sector Employers Support Employee Wellness?

Our public sector employees have taken a mental battering during the COVID-19 pandemic and will face further pressure should a recession hit. What strategies can you implement to support your employees during a recession?

1.  Educate Employees About Mental Health

Mental health is a sensitive and often misunderstood subject. Many people have the wrong impression of mental health, and some dismiss it entirely. To change perceptions, you need to educate employees about mental health.

A survey by Mind Share Partners found that 86% of employees said that they’d like their organization’s culture to support mental health more. They would like employers to create an empathetic culture around mental health conditions. There are three simple ways to do this:  

  • Provide mental health training to all employees.
  • Provide access to mental health resources.
  • Create an open culture to talk about mental health in the workplace.

2.  Incorporate Stress Management Techniques in the Workplace

Stress is a major contributing factor to both physical and mental health diseases. Employers are seeing the value in trying to mitigate the damaging effects of stress by implementing workplace stress management programs.

These can include:

  • Making mental health self-assessment tools available to employees.
  • Having regular one-on-one meetings with direct reports to find out what stressors they are struggling with at work and in their personal lives.
  • Encouraging employees to take all of their annual leave to prevent burnout.
  • Teaching employees stress management techniques, such as breathing exercises, meditation practices or going for short outdoor walks.
  • Creating a more relaxed office environment by adding plants, soft colors, ambient music and a quiet zone where employees can retreat from the buzz of the office.

3.  Include Mental Health Support in Your Employee Assistance Program

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are designed to assist employees who are struggling with personal problems that may be affecting their work. This could include problems with addiction, family difficulties, legal or financial matters and traumatic experiences. It should also include mental health assistance. Here are a few ways you could do that:

  • Provide free or subsidized clinical screenings for depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions.
  • Refer employees to a qualified mental health professional for treatment.  
  • Be flexible. For example, if an employee struggles with childcare arrangements, let them work flexible hours or work from home while they find a solution, if possible.
  • Allow employees to take leave for mental health reasons in accordance with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

4.  Keep Communication Open and Transparent

A recession is a stressful time for both employers and employees. Employers may have to make the difficult decision to cut jobs while employees fear losing their job. As a result, anxiety may be high on both sides.  

It’s important to keep the lines of communication open and be transparent about the organization’s plans. Allow employees to express their feelings and always respond to their fears in a compassionate and respectful manner.

Key Takeaways

Recessions don’t just affect people’s finances; they also affect people’s health and mental wellness. And it’s not just the unemployed who suffer. Those who are fortunate to keep their jobs also feel the strain. It’s important to acknowledge this and support your employees, especially when the stress of a recession is impacting their mental health.