Depression and anxiety are both constants in our modern-day, fast-paced society, but have also become rampant and sometimes palpable in the workplace, especially since the onset of the pandemic. There has always been a need for employee assistance programs (EAPs) for mental health, but since the onset of COVID-19, mental health awareness will be a major focus as employees return to work and are physically closer to their professional peers.
According to a Willis Towers Watson report conducted in May of 2020, 9 out of 10 employees globally reported experiencing some level of anxiety, while 7 in 10 reported being distracted at work due to COVID-19—and that was as the pandemic was just ramping up and we couldn’t even fathom how bad it could (or would) get. By the end of 2020, evidence mounted when both remote and on-site employees said they were facing mental health issues, such as job burnout, at record levels. In fact, a Gartner Inc. survey conducted in the last quarter of 2020 reported that a whopping 29% of employees polled considered themselves depressed, and 49% reported they had participated or opted into a EAP or mental health program during that year.
The Link Between Depression, Anxiety & Aggression
We all know that depression and/or anxiety have a residual impact on our personal and professional lives. But what we can’t predict is how this will manifest when millions of workers come back to their respective on-site workplaces — the uncertainty of returning to the workplace compounded by the susceptibility of those who choose to not get vaccinated could upend the office. So as many workers opt or are forced to return in-person, many theorize that there could be an impact on the office environment, when workers are relearning how to coexist in a shared space.
Retired FBI agent Terri Patterson, a psychologist and principal at a risk management consulting firm, opined that as workers continue to struggle with physical, mental and emotional stress stemming from the pandemic, these could create a vulnerable population or one “on edge”, which could manifest into more [than usual] incidents of workplace violence. Echoing that sentiment is Edgar Ndjatou, executive director of Workplace Fairness and a former employment attorney, who theorized that disagreements over vaccinations and mask wearing [or lack thereof] have the potential to fuel violent workplace conflicts.
However, hopefulness abounds that workers have been learning to tend to their mental well-being while they were working from home, so they may have a better grasp of their own mental health needs. Despite if this is or is not the case, many employees are going to turn to and rely on HR managers more to set the tone for a safe and healthy working environment as workplaces reopen and workers settle back into in-person or hybrid work routines.
No matter what, all of this likely leaves HR managers worried and wondering what they can do to prevent or head off workplace violence. Many experts agree that the best strategy for warding off the inevitability of these types of incidents is by conducting or outsourcing specialized training, such as peer mediation. For example, Patterson suggests that HR professionals and front-line managers receive training to identify early signs of psychological distress and methods for de-escalating volatile situations in order to “manage that initial crisis without making things worse.” And Ndjatou underlines this idea in the statement: “Managers will be the first line of defense […] to ensure that there's a smooth transition back to the workplace.”
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