If there is one constant amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s uncertainty.
What are my job prospects as I enter the workforce? How do I balance work meetings with unpredictable school closures and remote learning? How do I maintain social connections in this new virtual world?
At the same time, overall mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic has shown striking declines compared to pre-pandemic levels.
One factor that may influence these trends is the life stage you’re in. Individuals at different ages, and thus different life stages, actually show distinct patterns of distress over time. With some researchers worried that the negative effects could linger well after the pandemic has subsided, it is incumbent upon organizational leaders and employers to not only understand the general impacts of COVID-19 on employee mental health and well-being, but also the unique patterns at each life stage to inform the development of more effective workplace interventions.
An important consideration is the lens through which we interpret the decline. For instance, the most consistent pandemic mental-health data come from a series of ongoing reports by LifeWorks, an employee assistance and wellness provider formerly known as Morneau Shepell. The company surveyed several nationally representative samples starting in April, 2020. In these reports, the Mental Health Index compares responses in a given month to benchmark data between 2017-2019. A score of 0 denotes no change relative to the benchmark, whereas a negative (positive) score denotes a decline (improvement) relative to the benchmark.
If we look at a single snapshot of any given month, young adults aged 20-29 are experiencing the lowest levels of mental health. This finding is not unique. Scientific American magazine cited U.S. surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Johns Hopkins University and Boston University School of Public Health, all of which found the highest prevalence of deteriorating mental health among young adults.
Yet, in conversations with our clients, senior executives estimate that managing the pandemic during the mid-career years would be significantly more challenging than in any other life stage. Although at first glance it may seem that the practical experience is misaligned with the single snapshot data, an interesting finding emerges when we look at the entire series of snapshots across time.
The LifeWorks reports showed that the largest month-over-month variability in mental health is among adults aged 40-49. In other words, they likely experience the greatest fluctuations in emotions across time. Psychologists studying emotional variability have found that the instability of emotions can negatively impact well-being, independent of the valence of the emotion itself. This pattern would have been overlooked had the data only been considered at a single point in time.
Overall, these observations underscore two key findings: that there is a need to examine pandemic-related stress over time, and that age is an important factor in understanding individuals’ mental health during the pandemic.
In light of these conclusions, here are several suggestions that organizational leaders might find helpful to support their colleagues:
- Measure employee sentiments over time: Even prior to the pandemic, organizations have deployed annual “pulse check” surveys that assess employee sentiments, such as their engagement levels, and used these results as a basis for talent initiatives such as employee support programs or rewards and recognition; continuing this practice is especially important during the pandemic. As illustrated with pandemic mental health, however, assessing these sentiments as a single snapshot in time can mask other meaningful patterns in the data, leading to decisions that can negatively impact the appropriateness and effectiveness of the talent programs. Therefore, it is critical that employee sentiments be assessed multiple points over time.
- Normalize all experiences: It can be easy to assume that people in certain stages are faring better than they actually are. Indeed, an initial impression of the data might suggest interventions be directed towards younger employees. Yet, a closer examination reveals that their middle-aged counterparts are also experiencing unique challenges. One of the most powerful tools used by psychologists during therapy is normalizing – a process where they humanize the client’s hardships, such as empathizing with them or noting there are others in similar circumstances. In doing so, a stronger relationship exists, serving as fertile ground on which further problem-solving can occur.
- Make the workplace predictable: Particularly for middle-aged colleagues, the variability in their mental health likely stems in part from the increased unpredictability of their own life activities, along with those for whom they provide care. Here lies an opportunity for leaders to remove as much uncertainty as possible, thereby providing a sense of stability at work. Illustrating this point, a recent Gallup report found that over the course of 2020, despite employees’ wellness at work experiencing a stark decline, their engagement levels remained steadfast and even improved over the summer – a pattern attributable to the normalcy that work can provide amidst the chaos of the pandemic.
Navio Kwok is the vice-president of research and marketing at Kilberry Leadership Advisors, a firm of management psychologists based in Toronto and New York that specializes in executive assessments and C-level leadership advisory. He is the Leadership Lab columnist for June, 2021.
This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where writers, executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.
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