COVID taking a toll on credit union employees’ mental health

Some credit union employees are struggling with their mental health as they work from home.

Earlier this year, employers, including credit unions, scrambled to get their staff members set up to do their jobs virtually in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Now some workers are still remote and are missing the social interaction that comes with being around colleagues in an office.

“It does present an opportunity to understand the employees in your organization,” said Jim Durkin, a founding partner at Martec, a market research firm. “That allows you to tailor who comes back and who doesn’t. There might be some opportunities for employers to figure out which individuals thrive [while working from home] and who needs to be in the office environment.”

Prior to COVID-19, 62% of employees said they had positive mental health and 57% had job satisfaction, according to an emotional intelligence study from Martec Group. Those numbers drop to 28% for mental health and 32% for job satisfaction after the pandemic started, according to the study, which was based on responses collected in April.

The Martec survey divided respondents into different categories based on their answers to certain questions. Forty-one percent fell into either the “hopeful” or “thriving” segments. These two groups enjoyed working from home and no longer having to commute.

But 59% of workers reported feeling “trapped” or “discouraged.” These two groups missed the social interaction of being in an office.

Employees from the insurance and financial services industry fell in the middle with their responses, Durkin said. Their mental health scores dropped once the pandemic hit but there were other industries, such as education and government, that fared worse, he added.

“Their company satisfaction was among the lowest to begin with,” Durkin said. “Their drop was pretty low. … Maybe [because of] the nature of what those sectors are doing, working from home is a bit easier to execute depending on their function.”

However, by no means all workers in the credit union space are happy with the work-from-home arrangement.

Dave Larson, president and CEO at Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union in St. Paul, Minn., has been impressed by employees’ ability to embrace working remotely. One of the $3 billion-asset institution’s values is adaptability, and staff members have shown resiliency in handling significant changes this year, he said.

But he has also heard from staff members who say they “feel isolated and alone,” he added.

“They miss the human-to-human connection,” Larson said. “Zoom is not the same as sitting in the same room.”

To help bridge the feelings of loneliness, Affinity Plus has taken steps to connect employees, such as sending every worker a gift card to buy lunch so all staff can eat together virtually, and having staff members stop by the credit union to receive a blender during a drive-thru parade.

“These times have felt blended together so we went with that idea,” Larson said of giving out the appliances. “Employees came with their kids in the car, so it was a great opportunity to connect.”

Credit unions can take some simple and relatively inexpensive steps to support employees’ mental health, said Lisa Hannum, president and CEO of Beehive Strategic Communication. That includes offering a wellness program that addresses multiple areas of employees’ lives, such as physical health and eating right. Any initiative should include resources designed with steps employees can take and then see results.

“It’s important to think about, ‘Do we have a formal wellness program designed to support our total health?’” Hannum added. “This is all interrelated.”

If a credit union doesn’t currently offer a wellness program, it can start small by supporting daily positive practices, such as mediation and mindfulness, and scheduling “power hours” where workers can turn off other distractions to focus on more complex work, Hannum said. There are also mobile apps, including some that are free or relatively cheap, that can help an employer get started.

Beyond that, credit unions should encourage employees to take their paid time off, Hannum added. Many companies, including credit unions, have seen workers not using vacation days since the pandemic became widespread and Americans curbed travel plans.

“When we don’t take time off, we don’t take breaks,” Hannum said. “HR executives and leaders need to assess PTO usage and then connect with employees to encourage them to take meaningful breaks. That will support mental health.”

Affinity Plus gave everyone an extra 40 hours of paid time off that was “essentially mental health time they could use however they wanted,” Larson said. If a worker or a dependent contracted COVID, that person would get 80 hours of time off. Workers also got an additional eight hours to use for community service.

But in addition to that, the institution’s managers have been reminded to encourage employees to utilize their time off and other benefits.

A majority of Affinity Plus employees are also continuing to work from home through at least April 1, Larson said. That could be extended even further given the recent surge in COVID cases.

Through all of the stress and uncertainty, it’s imperative that the credit union approach its workers with understanding, Larson added.

“Everyone has a different set of circumstances,” he said. “We come at it from a place of empathy. … I do believe employees will never forget how we made them feel during this time of their lives.”


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