Over recent years, the mental health and wellbeing of employees has climbed the agenda in many businesses, prompting them to make this part of their core values. Conversely, businesses seen as poor in this area have often seen their performance and employer brands suffer.
The global pandemic has accelerated this trend and it’s difficult to imagine that any business has escaped the impact on mental health or been untouched by the need to put their arms around their employees. And it’s not just the employees, in many cases leadership teams will also have been affected by stress, anxiety and mental health issues brought on by professional, financial or personal difficulties.
Supporting employee’s mental health is not important purely because it’s the right thing to do. There’s also a clear business case if you look at the possible impact on productivity, performance and customer delivery. According to the Mental Health Foundation “Addressing wellbeing at work increases productivity by as much as 12%”.
If businesses are to survive the immense financial challenges ahead, they do need to maintain their level of services and deliver. And for that, they need a focused, motivated, physically and mentally robust and well team.
STRESS ON AN UNPRECEDENTED LEVEL
The word ‘unprecedented’ has almost defined the pandemic, and the scale of the challenge for mental health at work is no exception. With much of it falling into the laps of HR professionals, this is a tough time, given already burgeoning workloads.
Redundancies are hard on everyone in a business, and a time-consuming remit of HR. Unfortunately, the ONS predicts UK unemployment is likely to reach 2.6 million in the middle of 2021. That is 7.5% of the working age population. Given the current state of the economy and the ongoing restrictions affecting many business sectors, many employees will be extremely concerned that they are at risk and worried about finding further work if that happens. Living in a state of worry like this is highly likely to affect performance at work.
If you operate in a sector which has been switched on and off like retail or hospitality or in a devastated industry such as events, or just in a business which has seen reduced demand during the pandemic, you may have had to furlough staff, bring them back and then furlough them again. As administratively challenging as this is, it’s also likely to be head-spinning for the employees involved. Managing these transitions well will be crucial to maintaining a consistent service delivery once things do go back to normal.
Of course, people at all levels in a company may have been affected personally by Covid – by illness or sadly bereavement. Even some of those recovered from Covid have experienced long term affects (Long Covid), which has affected their mental and physical health. Supporting these people back to work and giving them time and space to get better and/or look after their families will be necessary, but difficult to manage.
Remote working has presented its own issues. Whilst many have embraced remote working, like anything, it doesn’t suit everyone. For people who place a lot of value on the social aspect of work, for those with less than satisfactory home lives or working conditions, for the many parents now juggling children at home alongside their working responsibilities, it is no wonder that this is a mental health minefield.
A TIME FOR BOTH EMPATHY AND PRACTICAL SOLUTIONS
As the pandemic has gone on far longer than anyone had expected, so will the mental health repercussions. If businesses are to maintain or improve their productivity and performance, they will need to support their people with effective, sustainable solutions. And it’s clear that HR departments will need to be at the heart of this.
Now, more than ever, building resilience is a big priority. It’s been talked about a lot in terms of children and young people, and the disruptions they are seeing to their lives. But the same can be said of employees. But how can businesses help build more resilience into their teams?
It might be that businesses may need to invest in specialist resilience training, something that larger enterprises may have done before the pandemic but the content of which is now relevant to all shapes and sizes of business. Effective training for staff in subjects like managing stress and anxiety, improving sleep and improving communication, could help teams become more robust in handling the challenges ahead.
Building a culture of resilience into your business is also a sensible plan. This means among other practices ensuring flexibility is possible and that employees feel empowered, trusted, able to express vulnerabilities and that a commitment to resilience permeates the whole organisation. Getting this right will foster a culture where workforces feel confident and supported in coping with ups and downs outside of their control.
Enhanced, reinvigorated communication
Communication during this pandemic has become a whole lot more challenging due to remote working, furlough and the inevitable priority of simply keeping operations running in some hard-hit businesses. But unfortunately, it’s also the very time when communication has needed to be stepped up to considerable levels.
A big factor in looking after employee’s mental health and wellbeing is simply to listen. To be there, to hear their worries and needs and for them to know they still have a voice.
Without the ‘water cooler’, the face to face meetings, the general day-to-day social interaction, communication needs to be dealt with proactively and creatively, which takes effort and the use of technology. HR teams should be encouraging line managers to keep up a steady and regular communication channel with their line reports, urging any employees feeling particularly isolated and anxious to let them know and ensuring some levity and social interaction takes place in addition to functional work meetings and calls.
The increased use of video calls also can have a toll, with people reporting ‘Zoom fatigue’. Encouraging screen breaks, carefully managing timetables and sometimes switching to a good old telephone chat could be a way to relieve this issue.
Review benefits in terms of health and support
Businesses may need to look at the benefits they offer to employees and bring in new ones in line with a greater emphasis on physical and mental health. For example, private health cover, cycle to work schemes (for the future), membership of online gym or yoga classes and access to trained counsellors will all be valuable assets for the mental health of the existing workforce. But they will also be appealing benefits to new recruits given the anxious state of the nation.
You may also need to continue flexible working hours and remote working into the long term, as families have shifted responsibilities around and people grapple with physical and mental health issues.
Some surveys have reported an upturn in productivity from home working, where employees have benefited from losing their commuting time and felt more motivated to work hard due to enjoying a better work/life balance.
This has led to many industry commentators predicting ‘hybrid’ workplaces becoming the norm, enabling a blend of home and office working. The benefits may be clear, but this will take careful performance management and communication.
Top-down support and coaching
While it is clear a huge amount of the work around employee wellbeing lies within the remit of HR, it does have to be an organisation-wide effort and commitment. Both the leadership and all levels of line managers must give time to coaching, listening and reacting if they are to be genuinely supportive of the whole business’s mental health.
This may require training and coaching. This is no time for leaders to be distant, leadership teams to harbour internal issues, toxic cultures to be tolerated or line managers to be so under the cosh they can hardly handle their own workloads, let alone allocate time to supporting their line reports.
Team coaching has been shown to be highly effective in boosting the productivity of leadership teams and their ability to engage and inspire their staff – crucial at these difficult times. For line managers, learning how to handle difficult and delicate staff situations, improving communication skills and motivating teams, as well as knowing their HR and leadership teams have their back will also help ensure the best support to all staff.
Sickness cover and planning
Rising mental health issues in businesses will inevitably lead to increased absence and possibly a rise in employees asking to reduce or change their hours or take time off for appointments. Naturally, this will cause some disruption to services and have an impact on the rest of the team or department.
Workforce planning, as challenging as it is in these turbulent times, will be a worthwhile exercise to build in flex and ensure the business is resourced sufficiently to take into account increased sickness, absence or drops in productivity.
With increased sickness rates nationally and one in five ‘long Covid’ sufferers still unable to work after six months, depending on the nature of your business it may mean ensuring back up of bank or temp staff to cover workloads as necessary.
Employee engagement, rewards and motivation
Whilst it’s far from a fix for serious mental health issues, organisations should not take their eye off the ball in terms of employee engagement strategy and the ‘softer side’ of reward and motivation. Effort with this can raise spirits and ensure employees feel valued and motivated to work.
This may even mean stepping up rewards and recognition for great work, introducing some fun (one company even introduced a silly awards such as ‘video call most interrupted by a child’ award) and small gestures and gifts such as an occasional cocktail making class, branded goodies sent home to employees, company-wide charity run or bicycle ride.
A big part of employee’s mental health is reassurance around their workplace, if it’s unavoidable that they go into work. There is little more anxiety-inducing feeling than a fear that going into work puts an employee and therefore their family at risk.
Implementing all government guidance for Covid-secure workplaces is essential, but you may also want to consider rotas, frequent communication and reassurance that the workplace is secure, and ensure any employees with specific concerns or worries are listened to and reasonable solutions or alternatives are found, where possible.
Return to work planning
It’s perfectly natural that as restrictions lift over the course of the year, and people drift back to offices and workplaces, some people may experience some anxiety over this. After all, it’s been a rocky and turbulent year and much like women returning from maternity leave, getting back into a normal social and working environment after a period of isolation from colleagues can be daunting.
You may want to consider a programme of induction-like sessions, where people are eased back in, trained on any new Covid-based procedures or practices, offered plenty of support from their line managers and encouragement given to team social events.
The nation’s mental health has suffered through this pandemic, and this will naturally impact on many people’s ability to work. It’s in the interest of businesses to look after their employee’s mental health, because that way they can get up to full capacity and customer service as quickly as possible. As much as this is a massive challenge for HR, it’s also a big opportunity to make a difference and ensure the whole team is well supported and able to deliver a great performance during, and after, the pandemic.Back to the lastest news