Summer 2021 was supposed to be a “summer of joy” with vaccines plentiful in the U.S. and lockdowns lifting. 

But infections are on the rise again because of the highly contagious Delta variant, resulting in the return of mask mandates in some places, new vaccination requirements and the need for some employers (including Indeed) to postpone return-to-office plans.

As a consequence, many of us are experiencing what has been described as “pandemic whiplash,” “permanent exhaustion” and “a new level of burnout.” The light at the end of the tunnel that we saw in June feels like it had dimmed somewhat by August. We’ll get through this pandemic, of course. But right now, I believe our collective mental health is a bit fragile, given everything we’ve been through.

Like you, I’m still learning and evolving as we ride this roller coaster. But I’d like to share a few mental health strategies I’ve developed as Indeed’s SVP of HR that can help during the pandemic — and after.

Pay close attention to how employees are feeling

Your employees and colleagues may be experiencing a gamut of intense, sometimes conflicting emotions right now, including: 

  • Frustration and confusion about how to protect themselves and loved ones against the Delta variant amid quickly changing — and politically polarizing — virus updates and guidelines.
  • Anger and resentment from some vaccinated employees toward those who aren’t vaccinated or from unvaccinated workers who feel their employers are pressuring (or even requiring) them to get vaccinated.
  • Disappointment among those who have been working from home and were longing to return to offices — only to see the return date pushed back. A July Indeed survey finds that 58% of U.S. workers have been looking forward to reuniting with coworkers and 43% are eager to make new work friends.
  • Anxiety about returning to the office as well as disappointment about the delayed return. “People report mixed feelings and a bit of trepidation as they gear up for a workplace that will be familiar, yet changed,” Indeed’s survey finds. 

Given these difficult emotions, it’s more important than ever to understand the people you work with so you can tell if they’re struggling. 

Showing an authentic interest in others is a good first step. Often, I start a conversation by asking a simple but direct question — “How are you doing today?” — and listening carefully to the answer. When I sense someone is having a hard time mentally, I might suggest when appropriate that they take time off. If they protest, I remind them that the world won’t stop spinning just because they’ve stepped away for a few days.    

Lead with vulnerability

Many employees will be reluctant to offer an honest answer when asked how they’re doing. One way to get them to open up is to relay your own difficulties. 

For example, in August 2020, I shared my struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety as part of my weekly company-wide email. I wasn’t sure what would happen. But I received responses from employees I didn’t know, who shared with me their own mental health challenges. 

Of course, some leaders may not be comfortable sharing things that are normally considered personal with colleagues and employees. But the more transparent and authentic you can be with others, the more you’ll build trust.  

Practice self-care 

Being an HR leader in these times is really taxing. I feel like every day, I’m doing the job I was originally hired to do plus another job that involves trying to solve complex problems with other Indeed leaders in order to best safeguard our employees and their families. 

Vaccinations, for instance, raise countless difficult questions. Should you require employees who report to workplaces to be vaccinated? If so, are you prepared to terminate employees who refuse? 

Alternatively, do you allow unvaccinated employees to come to a workplace as long as they’ve recently been tested for COVID? If so, how frequently should they be tested? 

Will you require clients and job candidates who visit your offices to be vaccinated? If your company plans to hold large in-person events in the future, such as a user conference, will you require everyone working or attending the event to be vaccinated? 

Such complex challenges can take a toll, not just on business leaders but on those affected by those decisions as well. So it’s important to take time to recharge. 

I take breaks throughout the long days to clear my head. I spend time with my husband, walk our dogs, and take short naps. I take a day off now and then as needed. I turn off email and chat notifications after hours. And I’ve been transparent about my self-care strategies with our CEO Chris Hyams, who is extremely supportive, and in our company-wide Q and As. 

Lean on a network of trusted advisors

As sympathetic as a spouse or good friend may be to the challenges you’re facing at work, only your peers will truly understand those problems — and can offer valuable advice and perspectives based on their experiences. This is why I recommend building a community of colleagues with whom you can enjoy virtual happy hours, exchange ideas, raise questions — and get or give support when it’s needed.

A sense of psychological safety is the key

The taboo of discussing mental health in the professional arena isn’t gone by any means. But since the pandemic began, I’ve noticed that it’s faded a bit. And as much as it pained me to hear about the mental health struggles of Olympic athletes Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, I applaud them for helping to push the discussion even further out into the open.

The pandemic will eventually end, but the discussion about mental health at work is just beginning. As HR leaders, we must keep the conversation going. For those discussions to be meaningful, we need to help give all employees a sense of psychological safety so that they’ll feel comfortable opening up about their mental health struggles without fear that they — or their job performance — will be judged.