Just when we thought it was safe to go back in the water, the great white shark returns. Only this time, the fearsome shark is the delta variant of COVID-19. It’s causing a new surge of employee stress and uncertainty just as so many workers, employers, and lawmakers were getting comfortable returning to the office, at least to some degree — feeling safer getting back in the water, as it were. 

This new surge of collective anxiety is hitting just as many employers had implemented a new generation of strategies and programs to support employee wellbeing in response to the lessons of the pandemic. We’d all hoped we’d turned the corner on COVID-19. And maybe we had. The delta variant and its measurable impact on employee stress and mental health may simply have been waiting around another corner.  

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance on masking in late July, some employers said they would adjust their policies accordingly. Several notable brands, particularly in technology (including Apple and Google), said they would postpone office-reopening dates or close campuses again after having briefly reopened them recently. Still, many workers feel a sense of rising vulnerability and frustration — including employees who are fully vaccinated but constantly hearing stories of breakthrough infections, “long COVID,” and the rise of the delta variant.

Other companies moved ahead without changing their policies or are still considering how to move forward, according to the national news reports.

No wonder employee stress is spiking as questions and fear about the delta variant and other aspects of the virus continue. For example, as The New York Times recently reported:

“The gulf between employers’ actions and workers’ concerns appears to foreshadow a period of rising tensions between the two, and unions appear to be positioning themselves for it. Some unions are calling on companies to do more to keep members safe, while others are questioning new vaccination requirements. The two positions may seem at odds, but they send a common message: Not so fast.

 

The siren call of the delta variant, breakthrough cases, and renewed employee stress


The surge in positive COVID-19 cases and its parallel uptick in employee anxiety are a siren call for employers and HR leaders to double down on their promises to offer and actively promote:

  • Wellbeing programs and tools that help build a more resilient workforce, to prevent and not just treat stress and burnout
  • A total wellness solution that takes into account the bright light the pandemic shined on the different expectations for support among today’s multigenerational workforce
  • Programs for recruiting, developing, and collaborating that instill a sense of safety and equal footing for everyone — one of the greatest challenges of the hybrid work model
  • A holistic wellness model that takes into account hourly workers — very often your customer-facing brand ambassadors, and yet the ones who are at the lower end of the pay range and whose roles, shifts, and job locations make it more difficult for them to access many health and wellbeing programs and tools
  • If it’s not too late, a fresh look at the benefits you’re offering for 2022amid continued economic uncertainty, lingering employee stress, and an anticipated tsunami of turnover

 

The fear, uncertainty, and employee stress being catalyzed by the new combination of the delta variant, long COVID, and breakthrough inflections all speak loudly in favor of giving employees the necessary tools and resources to support their total wellbeing regardless of what stage of physical, mental, or emotional health they’re at or where they work — on-site or at home. It’s critical to reducing absences and improving performance regardless of what life unexpectedly throws at us.