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Human Capital Management during COVID-19: Support for Well-Being and Mental Health

Leaders and managers can’t fix the unprecedented challenges arising from COVID-19, but they can provide personal support and assurance to their team members to help reduce isolation and anxiety. The stigma and weight of the issues make mental health a very private matter, but organizations can still help employees by understanding the importance of well-being and empowering them to help themselves. In addition, leaders and managers are best placed to spot the early signs of mental illness and ensure early intervention from the organization’s well-being or employee assistance program.

To address the stressors arising from a global pandemic, we provide practical recommendations for organizations and managers to support employees as they look after their own well-being and that of their coworkers during these uncertain times.

Organizations can support their employees’ mental health with the following seven steps:

  1. Promote an understanding of what well-being is across the organization. Leading companies such as Barclays, Bupa, and Unilever recognize that well-being is a composite of physical, psychological, social, and financial elements.1 Support and intervention need to be holistic to take all these dimensions into account. During the COVID-19 shutdown, companies need to encourage employees working from home to eat healthy meals, exercise regularly (itself a challenge in lockdown), speak freely about psychological pressures, and open up about financial worries (with many facing the real possibility of severe wage cuts, enforced furlough, or job loss).
  2. Encourage senior leaders to set the tone and lead by example. Our research into well-being shows that even in normal times, it’s vital for the most senior leaders in the organization to personally and actively champion the company’s commitment to employee well-being. It’s also vital that they reinforce corporate messages by role modeling specific behaviors in their own teams, and they should expect and encourage their direct reports to do the same with their teams. The CEO of Quilter has opened up about his own struggles, saying that it’s important to personalize these stories to reduce stigma.2
  3. Recognize the effect of anxiety. During COVID-19, on top of the economic uncertainty, workers who might not have chosen to work from home may find themselves in far from ideal conditions, juggling family commitments, surviving isolation, and coping with unsuitable workspaces that lack office equipment or collaborative tools. Some employees may feel uncomfortable or struggle to discuss their mental well-being with their manager or feel guilty that they don’t seem to be “coping.” To reduce anxiety, encourage your workers to take breaks from pandemic-related news. While it’s good to stay informed, the constant influx of news can increase the feeling of lost control and helplessness. The CDC also recommends taking regular breaks to relax as well as connecting with people you love for mutual support.3
  4. Embrace the power of storytelling. This is a powerful tool to change workplace culture and create a “sense of safety” that enables employees to be more open about their well-being, especially their mental health.The City of London’s This is Me™ campaign proved highly successful at drawing in diverse groups of employees and persuading them to “tell their story” via video.5 Companies can consider adapting this campaign to provide opportunities for employees and valued contingent workers to share their experiences of lockdown and teleworking. Stories can be both practical (tips for adapting successfully to working from home) and fun (e.g., competitions, sharing the best meme, joint workouts), and they help break down the sense of isolation that some people may be feeling.
  5. Review well-being strategies. In light of the COVID-19 crisis, organizations should review their existing employee assistance programs and conduct a needs assessment for populations, such as frontline workers, who are more at risk for increased stressors. Once those data are analyzed, help line managers and supervisors run guided conversations with their teams. To maintain progress, implement a continuous listening strategy and conduct regular surveys to gather information on employee well-being.6 As mental health is a tricky subject, a lighter touch can involve just providing resources. Review your communications and signposts to ensure employees know how to access support and resources offered by the company or trusted external providers, and support your line managers as they care for their employees. And, if you don’t already do it, make sure that mental health is part of your benefit package. As part of a broader mental health benefit plan, Starbucks is offering 20 free therapy sessions a year for all of its employees, including part-time workers.7
  6. Leverage employee resource groups. Employee groups (EGs) are evolving to respond to workplace changes, and well-being is an emerging topic.8 Companies like Verizon, Johnson & Johnson, and RetailMeNot have already implemented EGs to address mental health issues.9 Leadership buy-in, a focus on employee interest and needs, and checkpoints to track progress are all keys to creating and sustaining a strong EG.
  7. Network with other companies to share best practices. Companies with mature well-being programs are often passionate about the importance of well-being and often extraordinarily willing to share their learnings. Leverage networks to draw on best practices and new ideas to support remote workers during enforced lockdown. The Conference Board Councils, groups of HR executives, are finding such networks immensely helpful in quickly learning what works and what doesn’t in this rapidly changing time.

As the first point of contact for most employees, company managers have an important role in the continued mental wellness of employees. While managers are not expected to become therapists in times of crisis, they can still follow established practices to create a psychologically safe environment, helping their direct reports constructively process the various stresses caused by the pandemic.

Managers can help their team members in the following seven ways:

  1. Start a well-being conversation. Simply creating a space for employees to share their own struggles and tell their personal stories can be extremely therapeutic. Also, such a space can break down stigma, and peers can exchange information on how they are addressing similar challenges. Start the conversation with open-ended questions like: How have you been lately? What challenges are you facing? Actively listen and rephrase key concepts in your response to show you are listening. Be nonjudgmental and don’t pressure your employees to answer. Give the employees space and avoid interrupting or inserting your own experience.
  2. Be aware of signs of distress. Managers should have regular check-ins to monitor employee well-being. The increase in virtual work erodes the barrier between work and life, creating greater pressure to be “on call 24/7.” Also, the increased pressure to be competitive (or relevant) during this crisis puts more strain than usual on workers. Managers should look out for signs of increased fatigue, withdrawing, or uncharacteristic behaviors or changes in mood. These behaviors can appear as increased irritability, being behind on work, or being less communicative. For a longer list of warning signs, see the National Association of Mental Illness website.10
  3. Be extra considerate of neurodivergent workers. Neurodiversity is a viewpoint that considers neurological differences, such as autism, ADHD, and dyslexia, as variations of the human brain rather than illnesses or disorders to be fixed. Neurodivergent people tend to thrive within structure and routine, things that a regular work schedule and physical office can provide.11 A crisis often forces us to change our work environments and habits, which can be hard on a neurodivergent worker’s need for structure. To counteract such challenges, encourage your employees to self-accommodate, to work at a pace and at times fitting their neurological differences, and to do what works for them. In addition, hold regular check-ins to both encourage accountability and create the reliable patterns needed for neurodivergent workers to thrive.
  4. Provide a wellness action plan (WAP). Wellness plans are designed to help employees support their own mental health by reflecting on stressors and promoting practical steps to address them. A WAP asks questions like:What helps you stay mentally healthy at work?What can your manager do to support you in staying mentally healthy at work? Are there any early warning signs we might notice when you start to feel stressed/mentally unwell?These questions can provide employees with a productive way to self-reflect and increase their own self-awareness.12 After completing a WAP, employees can better frame and communicate their own needs to their manager, allowing them to have a productive conversation about their own mental wellness.
  5. Encourage positive habits. Another approach is to encourage employees to form positive habits to protect and maintain their well-being. PricewaterhouseCoopers, for example, has provided employees with a “habit bank” of everyday behaviors to “fuel” physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual “energy.” These habits include: turning off smartphone notifications, doing one thing at a time, winding down before going to sleep, and periodically checking on yourself during the day to notice physical tension and whether you need to take a short break.13
  6. Provide resources if an employee doesn’t feel safe at home. Social distancing has the unfortunate side effect of essentially trapping victims of domestic abuse, or any other toxic relationship, with their abuser(s). The United Nations has issued a warning about the surge of domestic violence cases resulting from the lockdowns required by COVID-19.14 Leaders can direct their employees to take advantage of resources like Futures Without Violence and provide employees with guides on how to make safety plans. Employees can also benefit from mapping out their support network or "pod." European countries are promoting local support networks during lockdown by encouraging victims of abuse to use code words at pharmacies to covertly signal that they need help.15
  7. Provide mental health first aid training. Employees should learn mental health first aid to support themselves and their colleagues. This training helps workers understand the signs of mental health distress and equips them with basic skills to help those around them. The training is meant to help coworkers during crises, providing the skills to support and encourage them to seek longer-term help if the situation warrants it.

This report is part of the larger Human Capital Management during COVID-19 series created by The Conference Board to help HC leaders navigate the effects of the pandemic with their employees. The series reflects not only the latest research (ours and others') but also the comments and insights from our Members as they address this unprecedented challenge. To see the other reports in the series, visit The Conference Board COVID-19 Pandemic Resources & Support for the Human Capital Community.


Related Resources

Why Mental Health Is a Talent Management Priority (The Conference Board blog post, November 18, 2019)

Workplace Prevention of Mental Health Problems: Guidelines for Organisations (Mental Health First Aid Australia, 2019)

2 Barbara Harvey, “Young Workers Need Companies to Prioritize Mental Health,” Harvard Business Review, January 29, 2020.

3 “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Stress and Coping,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, April 1, 2020.

4 Marion Devine, Moving the Dial on Well-Being and Mental Health in the Workplace, The Conference Board, May 2019.

5 This is Me is a mental health campaign initiated and led by London’s Lord Mayor’s Appeal Team in partnership with Barclays. For more information, visit The Lord Mayor’s Appeal website.

6 For more information on this topic, see: Robin Erickson et al., Continuous Listening Part 1, The Conference Board, October 2019, and Continuous Listening Part 2, February 2020.

7 Patrick Thomas, “Starbucks to Offer Free Therapy to All Workers,”Wall Street Journal, March 16, 2020.

8 For more information on this topic, see: Laura Sabattini et al., What’s Next For Employee Groups? The Conference Board, January 2020.

9 Jen Anderson, “The Case for Mental Health Employee Resource Groups,” Mind Share Partners, January 9, 2019.

10 ”Know the Warning Signs,” NAMI.

11 “Neurodiversity at Work,” CIPD, February 2018.

12 To learn more about this topic, see: “Guide to Wellness Action Plans (WAPS),” Mind.

13 “Habit Bank,” PwC, 2019.

15 Ivana Kottasová and Valentina Di Donato, “Women Are Using Code Words at Pharmacies to Escape Domestic Violence during Lockdown,” CNN, April 6, 2020.



Marion Devine

Senior Human Capital Researcher, Europe
The Conference Board


Robin Erickson, PhD

Principal Researcher, Human Capital
The Conference Board


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