man sitting alone at a lake After months of working from home, many employees are struggling to stay connected socially with colleagues. (Photo: Shutterstock)

As offices prepare to reopen (very slowly) across the United States, physical health is paramount. We’re hearing from clients that are considering re-opening their onsite fitness centers earlier than expected to reduce their employees’ exposure to community gyms and reduce another element of risk. Mandatory testing, temperature checks, mask use, thermal technology, and increased sanitation are all steps employers are taking to keep employees safe. Some organizations are even exploring social distancing technology that will alert employees when they are closer than six feet! Bottom line: Most employers are doing everything they can to keep their employees safe and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But, while physical health is the number-one concern, it’s certainly not the only concern. Emotional and mental health should also be a primary focus area for employers as they welcome back employees this summer, fall and winter.

Related: Risk of employee mental health conditions remains ‘alarmingly elevated’

After months of working from home, many employees are struggling to stay connected socially with colleagues. Others are balancing work with kids at home full-time. Yet others are trying to care for aging parents while working remotely. The point is: Your employees are struggling with their mental and emotional health just as much (if not more, in some cases) as they are with their physical health.

Some companies are already addressing this need head-on—in creative ways. Let’s look at six ways some of our clients are tackling the emotional and mental health of their employees as they start to consider how they’ll re-open their offices and onsite fitness centers.

1. Adding meditation to the benefit list. One company is using Headspace, the popular meditation app, to help employees improve mental health. Access to this app is free and now a part of the company’s benefits offerings.

2. Offer mental health first aid training. Similar to CPR certification, employers can offer Mental Health First Aid to select – or all – employees. Now available virtually, this certification helps participants learn about the signs and symptoms of someone in distress so they can have a conversation and refer participants to appropriate resources.

3. Grocery store tours with a dietician. With virtually everyone eating at home quite a bit more these days, learning how to shop at your grocery store in a more healthy way can be a big perk. And that’s what one company set out to do by offering up direct one-on-one access to a dietician. The dietician also leads virtual cooking classes for company employees, which can be fun and helpful for the whole family!

4. Teach employees how to be more resilient. During tough times like these, the ability to be resilient is more important than ever. That’s why one organization made it a priority to train front-line staff in resilience skills so not only could they be more effective in managing their own situations, they can weave in the concepts with participants as they work with them either on-site or virtually.

5. Facebook as mental health support? Yep, it’s true. And possible. One company started a private Facebook group for employees named “Life After Work” designed to provide support (and entertainment) for employees after hours. During the first week, the company featured an employee musician, which was a big hit—it also gave the musician a chance for additional exposure. So far, the group has been a nice diversion for employees.

6. Puppy pics to the rescue! What’s better for your mental health than puppy pics? One company started a program called “Advice From a Dog,” and so far, it has driven a ton of employee engagement! As you can imagine, many employees are posting pics of their dogs—and it’s really enhanced that social connectedness between employees.

As you think about your company’s back-to-the-office plans this summer, fall and winter, don’t forget to address the emotional and mental health of your employees. Safety and physical health are still important—no question about it. But, devising specific programs to address the continued stress employees have been dealing with for the past four-plus months is important, too.

James Aranowski is senior director, program management & engagement at HealthFitness, where he is responsible for strategic relationships with HealthFitness accounts and for providing overall leadership for the HealthFitness associates serving clients. He specializes in large fitness, recreation and wellness management projects including corporate, hospital and community programs.

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