Helping employees with the new normal

April 12, 2022

For business owners, plan administrators, and sponsors

If there’s one thing that’s been consistent during this pandemic it’s that nothing is consistent. Wave after wave shows us that while we might be done with Covid, Covid’s not done with us. The truth is that no one knows where this is going. As we reach two years of pandemic life, the workplace adjustments made in 2020 no longer seem temporary.

The new normal

What does “the new normal” mean for employers that have already had to pivot, adjust and adapt? It means that pivoting, adjusting and adapting is the new normal. Employers can’t make Covid go away or make employees better if they catch the virus, but they can provide a workplace environment that helps employees manage the stress that this pandemic brings.

“It’s like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” says Dr. Georgia Pomaki, Manulife’s Director of Mental Health Best Practices; Disability & Life. “The workplace is where we meet basic health and safety needs first. If you don’t have that, it erodes trust and engagement.”

Here’s what organizations should consider:

Benefit plans

Does your benefits plan offer enough mental health coverage? The pandemic has been incredibly stressful on our mental health and Manulife’s claims history over the past two years shows that anxiety claims are increasing.

HR programs and policies

  • Create policies that provide an appropriate number of sick days for employees with Covid or isolating due to close contacts.
  • For employees who work from home, think creatively about programs that help maintain connections. Ensure employees are taking scheduled breaks.
  • For employees in a workplace, consider staggered hours, more breaks and any tasks employees can do from home.
  • Empower leaders to provide employee support. Do they have time set aside to talk to their team members? Do they have the tools and skills they need to do this?

Employee support team

The pandemic has affected different industries in different ways. But it’s really important for all organizations to have clear roles and accountability for employee support. Give someone (or a team) accountability to ask employees: how are you? Employees need to know they matter and feel supported. It needs to be genuine.

“How a company responds to employees’ needs in a time of crisis will matter in the long term. It will frame the workplace culture and define the company going forward,” says Dr. Pomaki.

Workplace accommodations

After we ask employees if they’re okay, we need to be prepared to do something with the answer. This is where workplace policies and programs come into play. However, one size doesn’t always fit all. We need to be flexible as we support employees who are working and those who are on leave.

“When we offer accommodations to employees returning from a disability leave, we not only make the return to work possible, successful and safe, we also put the building blocks towards preventing a relapse and avoiding another leave,” says Dr. Pomaki.

A culture of flexibility and forgiveness

Whatever policies employers develop, the most important tool is flexibility. Employees see how their co-workers are being treated if they’re sick or need help. “If we treat our people well now, they’ll be our most loyal employees in the future,” says Dr. Pomaki.

Being flexible in terms of when, how and where people work can only benefit organizations. “We’ll see increased engagement, we’ll retain skilled employees and build a strong relationship of trust,” she adds. “All of these will lead to a better culture and a stronger workforce.”

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