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Your employees aren’t underperforming. They’re dealing with post-pandemic trauma

As a leader, make peace with the idea that workers need time to recover and adjust.

Your employees aren’t underperforming. They’re dealing with post-pandemic trauma
[Photo: Helen King/Getty Images]

For many employees, the pandemic was worse than any scary movie they could imagine and, by the American Psychological Association’s definition, traumatic. In layman’s terms, trauma is an emotional response to terrible, shocking, and/or life-changing events. Many of the direct effects of the pandemic, such as economic loss, prolonged social isolation or uncertainty, or death of a loved one all add to an employee’s psychological distress and could fall within this category.

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Even as vaccines become more widely available, the trauma is still taking a significant toll on this country. If your employees are still feeling anxious or depressed from the pandemic, they are not alone, as a recent survey found that 47% of adults continue to report negative mental health impacts related to worry or stress from the pandemic.

As many of us heal and process these traumas and feelings of anxiety and depression, it may feel impossible to deliver 100% at work. As business leaders plan for what the future of work looks like, understanding where employees are and how the pandemic may impact their work performance is important. Here are a few things to watch for if an employee is struggling with the transition back to the office:

  • Hypervigilance. If someone is suffering from anxiety, they may appear to be very alert or easily startled. This could look like someone pacing around the break room, constantly fidgeting, or getting easily startled by small sounds.
  • Longer and/or more frequent breaks. It’s important for employees to take breaks in their day to keep their minds sharp, but it also could indicate someone is dealing with emotional triggers. Perhaps that employee who has been taking several bathroom breaks is actually crying in the bathroom or is looking at their phone frequently because they have a relative in the hospital.
  • Spikes in sick days and used PTO. When someone is struggling with high levels of depression and anxiety, getting out of bed can feel like running a marathon. There may be days when this feels too overwhelming, and they call in sick or use extra PTO days. While many are trying to take time off to travel again, watch for employees who don’t seem to have plans or who have been calling in sick a lot.

If you think your employee has been underperforming and may be exhibiting some of these signs, it can be hard to figure out how to talk about it or what to do next. Here are a few ideas:

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  • Ask what the pandemic has been like for them. We have no way of knowing exactly what everyone has experienced over the last year. However, it’s important to start an open dialogue. Try saying something like, “I know the last year hasn’t been easy for me; what was it like for you?” If you can allow yourself to show a bit of vulnerability and share some examples of how you have struggled, this may open the door a bit more to meaningful communication. Active listening is also key.
  • Allow the employee the flexibility to ease into a “new normal.” After working remotely for more than a year, many employees might suffer from culture shock when suddenly asked to go into the office five days a week. However, a person can slowly begin to ease back into the office through safe, gradual exposure so that there are small wins and only minor stresses to cope with. In an office setting, this might mean allowing employees to have flexible hours, so perhaps they can come into the office for a few hours at a time and gradually work their way to a longer day.
  • Sit down and make plans together. Back-to-back meetings and endless to-do lists would make anyone stressed, let alone someone experiencing mental health challenges. Offer to sit down with your employee to plan their week and adjust their schedule, and get additional resources as needed. These small adjustments can really add up and make a difference in someone’s day.
  • Offer resources for employees to seek professional help.
    Be proactive about sharing resources for employees to navigate yet another new normal. Is online therapy an available benefit? Are there nearby community resources that employees can leverage without having to take PTO? Are there mindfulness apps like Headspace that might be discounted for employees? These are all great resources to help people feel supported in and outside the office. It’s also important to create a safe environment to use these resources in the office. Let’s end the days of taking teletherapy appointments in our cars, and instead create private spaces where employees feel comfortable getting the help they need.

We have all gone through a lot over the last year. It’s important to take steps to show compassion for employees (and yourself), as we reflect on the impact of what’s happened and get accustomed to what the future of work looks like. Consider these warning signs and suggestions to create a healthier work environment, where employees feel comfortable and ready to innovate. Who knows, the employee who is struggling now could turn out to be one of your top performers later on.


Dr. James Wantuck is the cofounder and chief medical officer at PlushCare, a company offering virtual healthcare.

Melissa Dowd is a licensed marriage and family therapist, as well as the therapy lead at PlushCare.

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