The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging our worlds with a new normal that is changing how we live and work. For the vast majority of people, stress and fear have merged with our reality. Healthcare workers are making life-and-death decisions daily while working with a lack of medical gear and supplies. Essential workers also continue to put themselves at risk.
While physical and mental pressure comes with the territory in some workplaces and professions, the truth is that stress at work was present even before the novel coronavirus became a daily threat to organizations all over the world. According to a Korn Ferry survey, stress levels have risen nearly 20 percent in the last three decades.
We live in a fast-paced world that makes it easy to overlook overworked and stressed employees. No matter how much you care about their well-being, you might fall into the trap of misreading the signs of a more serious condition: emotional distress.
How does one recognize emotional distress in a world where positivity is sometimes normalized to the point that genuine expressions of stress escape the best of us?
Merriam-Webster defines emotional distress as a highly unpleasant emotional reaction such as anguish, humiliation, or fury, which results from another’s conduct. The consequences can manifest in depression, panic attacks, and anxiety. But how does one recognize emotional distress in their employees in a world where positivity and productivity are sometimes normalized to the point that genuine expressions of stress can escape the best of us?
How to Identify Emotional Distress in the Workplace
Identifying intentionally-inflicted distress
The federal law recognizes two types—intentionally inflicted, and negligently inflicted emotional distress. According to the advocacy organization Workplace Fairness, deliberately inflicted emotional distress occurs when the employer causes intense emotional harm to the employee. Such behavior is considered extreme and outrageous, and it is punishable by law.
To be able to address emotional distress in the workplace, you need to be aware of it. But how do you elevate those signals and encourage your employees to reach out?
Create inclusive and equitable workplace policies
To properly identify emotional distress, the first thing you need to consider is whether your staff has trust in HR. Given that as many as 80 percent of people don’t trust their HR departments, it pays to ask yourself: are there mechanisms in your organization that allow employees to safely come forward with their doubts and work-related problems? Do you have equitable policies in place?
Maybe you have noticed unexplainably lower performance or a significant lack of motivation among one of your workers. You suspect that they are emotionally distressed, but you can’t determine the best way for them to open up. In that case, you might consider leveraging technologies more often.
Use technologies that improve psychological safety
One way to create a culture of psychological safety and incorporate "emotional distress checks" into your strategy is to introduce surveys, reports, and detection systems that can predict or show risk.
While we've written previously that a positive employee experience can't be built on self-reporting alone, a strong self-reporting system coupled with other detection methods can not only help you get ahead of risks but also offer greater support to your employees.
Consider what you currently have in place to gather data and feedback. From there, think about other techniques your company can provide that are complementary to your organization's needs and values. Do you have other methods that you could use to protect your staff’s well-being that you are currently not utilizing? For more ideas, check out our series on creating a top-notch employee experience.
Show your employees that you care
Emotional distress can be embodied in many ways. You might notice that the employee has a hard time meeting their deadlines or requires more guidance than usual. There could be a lack of motivation or sensitivity to feedback. The anxiety can also reveal itself in communication. The employee might be avoiding colleagues, talking less, or calling in sick more frequently than usual.
Are there mechanisms that allow employees to safely come forward with their doubts and work-related problems? Do you have equitable policies in place?
If you are seeing these signs in one of your employees for a period that seems longer than normal, you should consider reaching out. While you can’t be sure if they are emotionally distressed because of work or personal issues, you can offer them help and support. Your goodwill and friendly approach will show them that you care, which can lead to finding a solution.
Identifying unintentionally-inflicted distress
You’ve discovered that one of your employees is distressed, but you haven’t managed to figure out who could be causing the pain, and they don’t feel comfortable opening up. Whether it's taking care of sick family members or other causes of emotional suffering, there are so many events today that can trigger anxiety and it can be hard to tell if a hire is simply having a bad day or experiencing something deeper.
What if you can’t find the root of the emotional distress?
Understand that the core cause of an employee’s emotional distress isn’t always connected to an explicit behavior in your organization. People’s past experiences can interfere with the present. It’s possible that your hire simply hasn’t healed yet from negative workplace experiences or they happened to run into a perfect storm of unhelpful workplace interactions that were specific to them.
In any case, your employees, particularly those who have been intimidated, overlooked, or humiliated in the past may have developed a habit of shutting down and not asking for help. Here, you will need to employ your psychological safety skills and show that people can trust you. People who feel safe and appreciated as a human and a worker will be more ready to approach you.
How to protect the mental well-being of your employees
If you want to help an emotionally distressed employee, you'll need to make them feel supported and safe again. To do so, you'll need to identify and eliminate the reason behind the emotional pain, especially if the cause comes from other co-workers or people in the highest positions.
Introducing a well-being program that integrates technology, policy, and human insight can create a safe space that nurtures empathy and understanding. If your employees feel that they are being appreciated for who they are, and not just for what they do, they will feel more connected to you.
To help an emotionally distressed employee feel supported and safe again, you'll need to identify and eliminate the reason behind the emotional pain.
While creating a safe work environment is a crucial part of reintegration, there are even more ways to ensure successful healing. You should consider providing the employee with emotional and mental support even after the employee comes back to a regular work tempo.
Employee satisfaction is your organization’s success
The main role of a well-being program should be to create an atmosphere of open communication and trust. That will encourage employees to ask for help when they are feeling overwhelmed or in danger, which can prevent more serious problems in the organization.
If you are striving towards a successful organization with genuinely satisfied employees, mental health should be just as essential as productivity. When you cherish your workers, you get a more motivated and driven staff. An organization that protects its employees stands out because it demonstrates that the value of humanity always comes before short-term profits, with better results in the long term.
Tina Nataroš is a writer and journalist who covers topics including workplace diversity, equity, and psychological safety. Prior to becoming a freelance writer, she served as a journalist for a youth-affirming news organization and in marketing and HR for AIESEC, a global youth organization which awoke her passion for HR.