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Managing mental health challenges in a post-pandemic workplace

How property managers can help create happier, healthier spaces for employees

By Libby Ekre, CPM®
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March marked the unofficial four-year anniversary of the COVID-19 lockdown in the United States. It was on March 11, 2020, that the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, closing schools, churches, workplaces, and pretty much everything beyond whatever was defined as essential.

Since that time, we’ve seen how the pandemic reshaped the way we live. Not only is the death toll from COVID-19 approaching 30 million people worldwide, but the isolation many experienced during this crisis caused a surge in mental illness, alcoholism, drug use, and crime. Remote work became the norm, and new hires entered the workforce without ever experiencing traditional office dynamics, creating unprecedented challenges for employers in managing mental well-being.

The impact of pandemic isolation on mental health

As we began the slow recovery from lockdowns, I started to see that pandemic-induced isolation had taken a toll on mental health, including in some of my company’s own employees, leading to increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. Remote work, while offering flexibility, blurred the boundaries between professional and personal lives, contributing to feelings of burnout and loneliness. For those who were hired during the pandemic and had never worked in an office, the lack of social interaction exacerbated feelings of isolation and made returning to the office terrifying.

Adjusting to our new ways of working

In our new, flexible workplaces, I see that supportive employers are redefining work-life integration to promote a healthier balance between work responsibilities and personal well-being. These inclusive employers are encouraging employees to take regular breaks, setting clear boundaries around work hours, and promoting self-care practices such as mindfulness.

Erin Hopkins, PhD

IREM academic member Erin Hopkins, PhD, associate professor of property management in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech, has been exploring mindfulness to promote stress reduction and employee well-being within the property management industry. To support her work, the IREM Foundation has honored Dr. Hopkins with a grant from the J.T. Aveni Center for Research.

“When we look at the [property management] industry, real estate professionals identify teamwork, oral communication, and interpersonal skills as the most important employee skills. And we know developing these competencies can cause stress and negatively affect employee well-being,” says Dr. Hopkins. “With more than 3.9 million employees in the U.S. commercial real estate industry, mindfulness-based interventions really do have the potential to positively impact employee well-being across many employees. Also, mindfulness-based interventions could positively impact real estate employers. It’s been shown that increased employee well-being reduces employee turnover, which in turn decreases associated onboarding and training costs for new employees.”

Creating a culture of well-being

Employers can help employees achieve greater overall satisfaction and well-being by fostering a culture that values work-life integration.

Debbie Phillips, Ph.D., CPM®

IREM member and instructor Debbie Phillips, Ph.D., CPM®, and president of The Quadrillion, shared her thoughts on the state of mental health in the workplace today. She says, “Leaders, take note. It’s not enough to simply say your company offers support services for mental health and wellness; you must demonstrate the behaviors you wish to have repeated. Build a culture of connection through consistent check-ins. Model healthy behaviors and make health and wellness a part of every conversation. Move from ‘initiative’ to ‘immersion.’”

What can property managers do to help?

As Dr. Phillips says above, property managers can support mental health by creating a safe and healthy environment for employees, which can promote well-being and reduce stress. Here are some easy strategies to consider that might make a difference:

  • Offer fitness resources and healthy eating seminars to encourage healthy lifestyle choices.
  • Let pets come to work one day a week.
  • Build a pickleball court, indoors or outside, depending on your region.
  • Hire a chef to prepare a healthy lunch once or twice a week.
  • Have a rooftop happy hour to promote camaraderie and socializing.
  • Install Bevi machines that let users fill a water bottle, flavored or unflavored, flat or sparkling.

Above all, create an environment where your employees feel comfortable discussing mental health concerns, and provide information on how to seek help if needed. This involves promoting open communication and destigmatizing conversations about mental health in the workplace. By encouraging employees to speak up about their mental health challenges without fear of judgment or repercussions, employers create an environment where employees feel supported and empowered to seek help when needed.

“Our on-site teams are not only supporting their residents and tenants,” says Dr. Phillips, “but they’re also juggling the demands of childcare, eldercare, personal finance, burnout, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other trauma. Employers who are truly creating a culture of compassion will attract and retain top-tier talent. There’s a vast difference between a workplace that simply ‘promotes’ well-being and a company that actually ‘lives’ it. Living well begins with listening well. Listen to the needs of your team and act accordingly.”

Manager training

Employers are also investing in mental health training for managers and supervisors to equip them with the skills and knowledge to recognize and respond to mental health concerns. Training often includes education on identifying signs of distress, initiating supportive conversations, and connecting employees with appropriate resources and support services. By empowering managers to address mental health issues proactively, employers can ensure that employees receive the support they need in a comfortable way.

Implementing mental health policies and benefits

Good employers recognize mental health issues are as valid and serious as any health issue, and they provide access to a range of mental health resources and benefits to support employees’ well-being. This can include offering employee assistance programs (EAPs) that provide confidential counseling services, mental health hotlines, and online resources and tools for managing stress, anxiety, and depression. Employers can also offer mental health benefits as part of their healthcare plans, like coverage for therapy sessions, psychiatric treatment, and prescription medications. By providing comprehensive mental health support, employers demonstrate their commitment to prioritizing employee well-being and ensuring employees have access to the resources they need to maintain good mental health.

To help you get started, see these wellness courses offered by IREM.

Journal of Property Management

Libby Ekre, CPM®, is the 2024 IREM President and a principal of MEB Management Services, AMO®, in Phoenix.

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