© Frank Magwegwe 2020

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It has been more than a year since the first case of the Covid-19 coronavirus was reported in South Africa.

Organisations and employees have had to navigate several national lockdowns of varying intensity. Global and local research, including my own, offers several learnings on how employers can support employee mental health and sustain organisational performance.

In general, employees have proved that they are resilient during these unusual times. However, to sustain this resilience, employers need to now focus on employee mental and emotional health.

Paradoxically, research shows that while self-reported employee productivity is high, employee mental and emotional health, as measured by the World Health Organisation’s WHO-5, a global standard, is relatively low.

This paradox can be explained by the benefits of working from home, such as not having to travel to work, flexibility, control over working patterns and more time spent with family.

However, these benefits come at the cost of benefits of working at the office such as connection and social support, water cooler interactions and learning by observation.

Research suggests that satisfaction with work/life balance, regular contact with a line manager and, more importantly, working within regular office hours play an important role in employee mental health.

Employees reported that these factors are some of the most difficult to achieve because of the blurred or in some cases collapsed boundaries between work and home as a result of working from home.

Managers, caregivers and parents are taking more strain from working from home. An interesting observation from my discussion with leaders in organisations is that because most employees proved to be resilient to the stressors brought about by the pandemic, leaders and companies are relying on this resilience or coping.

However, reliance on employee coping or resilience alone is not a sustainable strategy for organisational performance because of the real risk of employee burnout, state of emotional or physical exhaustion.

Research shows that line managers have been unsung heroes in many organisations – they made considerable efforts to support their teams, practically and emotionally, during the lockdowns.

Surprising, my discussions with leaders revealed that this invisible and time-consuming work by line managers went unnoticed with no adjustments made to line managers’ workloads. Furthermore, line managers report that they have received very little training from their employers on managing their teams during the pandemic.

Thus, our first recommendation for employers is to provide training that strengthens line managers’ management skills for the current demands and the future of work.

Also, establishing guidelines for good line management to supporting employees during an emotionally charged and constantly changing circumstances is recommended.

Our second recommendation is that employers provide employees with mental and emotional well-being training that empowers them in their daily work and lives. For example, training based on Dr Martin Seligman’s PERMA model of well-being has five components.

PERMA stands for:

  • Positive emotion
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishment

Third, because the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed that resilience is a skill that can be taught, employers can offer their employees training to build and sustain their resilience.

Such training focuses on evidence-based factors for resilience such as optimism, self-awareness, mental agility, managing emotions, positive relationships, and mastery.

Fourth, communicate with employees the company’s developing thinking on future hybrid work models and practices. Research shows that some employees are anxious about returning to the office and losing some of the benefits of working from home.

There is no doubt that working from home has disrupted the world of work and that employees adapted well to this new reality. However, employees miss the social interactions that come with working at the office. While employees report high perceived productivity, working has had a toll on their mental and emotional health.

Therefore, a focus on employee resilience, mental and emotional well-being is required to avoid employee burnout and its associated impact on organisational performance.

Finally, there is no doubt about the need to train line managers and other people managers on the management skills that support mental and emotional health and broader employee well-being to sustain performance and productivity among teams working from home.

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Article originally appeared on City Press