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Employee Anxiety & Depression in the Workforce

While reviewing employee responses to prepare our 2021 Retention Report (reflective of 2020 Employee insights on Turnover, Reasons, Costs, and Recommendations*), I am struck by the influence of the coronavirus pandemic on employee and organization behaviors, especially in the categories of Well-Being, Work-Life Balance, and Health and Safety that can all lead to workforce anxiety, depression, and safety concerns.

Humans have a particular requirement for safety. In 2020 and moving into 2021, safety has unsettled, causing disorder in physical, emotional, cognitive, financial, social, occupational, and spiritual domains. Purpose – finding meaning in daily tasks and future-oriented goals; Mattering — questioning the significance of objectives; and Ecological Coherence — making sense of workplace or work-from-home tools, resources, support, equipment, and assistance have all been compromised.

“… the average adult in our society generally prefers a safe, orderly, predictable, lawful, organized world, which [one] can count on and in which unexpected, unmanageable, chaotic, or other dangerous things do not happen …”  —- Abraham Maslow

In the week ending February 13, 2021, 861,000 Americans filed for unemployment. COVID continues to claim record-breaking deaths. Parents often do not know day-by- day whether their children will be in school, schooling from home, or not schooling at all. Employees are quitting placing additional strain on already compromised resources. Despite reductions in 2020 travel, in many parts of the country more people have died on the roads than in previous years. And the list goes on.

Aggression, antagonism, complaining (fight); turnover (flight); and immobilization (shut down/depression) are all symptoms — energy depleting attempts to directed at regaining a sense of safety. These behaviors are also natural and normal human defense reactions to the loss of safety.

An employer’s response (only if the employer wants to reduce accidents, injuries, complaints, absenteeism, and turnover) must be to help employees move out of defensive (and offensive) behaviors that lead to workforce anxiety and depression.

Doing so requires organizations to create the conditions necessary for employees to regain (or minimally) increase their sense of safety.

  • Collect employee feedback, listen, and understand current employee concerns.
  • Secure employee insights for guiding efforts to improve.
  • Assess employee intent to stay, intent to leave, and actual exit. Uncover the real reasons and act on them.
  • Uncover and act on actual and potential safety concerns.
  • Make individual counseling and coaching accessible and confidential.
  • Choose and assign SMART goals aligned with productivity, accomplishment, challenge, and growth.
  • Train supervisors to recognize aberrant behavior.
  • Train employees to recognize reactions to threats to safety. Normalize those reactions and help define alternatives.

Not for all, but for many: it is time for companies to move away from their own harbored organizational immobilization and sail forward.

If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.  — Seneca. 


* Work Institute’s Retention Reports can be found here.