How employers can support mental health at work
Positive conversations around mental health are undoubtedly on the rise in the workplace. There’s been a clear shift in recent years towards more organisations wanting to understand what they can practically do to help support employees and develop a culture of wellbeing, recognising its positive impact on productivity.
Throughout 2020, as a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic, many companies that had previously only been talking the talk began to act: putting steps in place to bolster feelings of connection, purpose and belonging.
So what does good mental health look like in today’s challenging business climate? What role can, and should, employers play in supporting and elevating the wellbeing of staff? And how, as a manager or employee, can you successfully move from intention to action?
In this informative session, which featured at both the ‘Improving Workplace Health and Wellbeing’ conference and at the ‘HR 2020 Summit’, Abigail Hirshman, Director of Workplace Programmes at the Charlie Waller Trust, shares her thoughts on what employers can do to boost mental health and promote wellbeing in today’s world.
We hope you are able to watch the full video. If not, we’ve summarised the key parts below for you.
The power of collective responsibility (02:02)
Covid-19 has changed the world and, specifically, the world of work. We cannot underestimate or deny the different lens through which we now all view engaging with other people; necessary social distancing measures have completely altered traditional ways of working, collaborating and interacting with our peers and friends.
During these challenging times, workplaces have had to flex substantially, and managers have needed to adopt innovative and unexpected methods to keep people feeling engaged, safe and productive - while at the same time acknowledging that our working lives are very different to how they were just 12 months previously.
Yet, despite the many changes, a shared goal and collective responsibility still lies firmly at the heart of positive wellbeing and productive workplaces; arguably, it’s even more important at a time when so many are physically separated from workplaces and colleagues. The Acas framework for positive mental health at work states that the following needs must be collectively met to successfully achieve a shared goal:
- Individuals must be self-aware, looking after their own wellbeing and able to ask for help when needed
- Managers must be informed and open to conversations with their staff, planning work with ‘people’ in mind
- Employers must be visibly committed to positive mental health, reducing stigma and understanding the impact that personal issues can have on mental wellbeing.
We all must recognise that our individual actions and behaviour will effect others in professional environments, and understand how important it is to honour our own unique responsibilities. This is fundamental to growing workplace wellbeing and working towards a shared goal.
Building positive wellbeing during uncertain times (04:38)
The actions that employers, managers and individuals take, in the midst of a challenging period, can make a big difference when it comes to encouraging and promoting wellbeing.
- Employers: Set the vision; consult and communicate
The way in which a company communicates its vision and purpose is key, now perhaps more so than ever. McKinsey’s recent report into agile resilience in the UK found that there have been five common features of resilient organisations during the pandemic - and establishing a common purpose, backed by clear communications, came top of this list.
Organisations that set a vision, talk openly about what they want to achieve and focus on frequent dialogue with employees have greater resilience, especially when a consultative approach is taken to communicating this purpose within the company. As traditional hierarchical business models begin to diminish, especially with the pandemic serving as a cultural ‘leveller’ in many sectors, we are seeing our bosses and our colleagues in informal environments and situations that, before Covid-19, had not often been seen. This has presented an opportunity for more open conversation and consultation within organisations.
Feedback also plays a crucial role: As an employer, how do you express what you are trying to achieve - the bigger goals - going forward? What feedback mechanisms do you have in place for staff? Are you communicating how you want to support people and will keep them connected during this time? Employers who place open communication above all else will reap the long-term benefits.
- Managers: Build relationships; respond to signs
This has undoubtedly been an unsettling time for many managers. Employees may have left, new starters may have joined, budgets may have tightened and strategic goalposts may have shifted considerably.
So how you build relationships, particularly if you and your colleagues are all working from home, is a really fundamental consideration for managers, and should be a huge priority focus area right now. From a mental health standpoint, managers should ask: how do I recognise and respond to the signs if someone is struggling? Am I equipped to provide support when it’s needed? Am I aware of the signs of stress and struggle in myself, and putting sufficient self-care measures in place?
- Individuals: Talk about mental health; look after yourself
Positive and supportive conversations about mental health in the workplace have risen significantly during the months of lockdown and social distancing. Yet as individuals, regardless of our role or our function in the workplace, do we still talk about mental health enough? Do we regularly share how we feel, how we’re coping, and how we’re managing this unprecedented situation with those that we work so closely with?
The concept of ‘work/life balance’ has been largely dissolved this year, as have the self-care habits and rituals that were routine for so many of us before the pandemic hit. Organisations have a real responsibility to make sure that individuals have the confidence and the ability to seek and access essential support and information to aid self-care and facilitate positive wellbeing.
Causes of workplace stress (08:15)
Parents and carers of young children, especially, have had a lot on their plates during 2020, not least coming to terms with the pandemic itself: adults up and down the UK suddenly had to tackle school timetables, algebra, PE with Joe Wicks and a whole host of impromptu teaching responsibilities while also, in many instances, fulfilling their workplace responsibilities simultaneously.
The challenges that arose in 2020 couldn’t have been predicted: while it fast-tracked the long-held aspiration of many employees to work from home, this working arrangement came without warning and certainly in far from ideal circumstances. It’s fair to say that the causes of workplace stress have changed a great deal this year, and it’s encouraging that many firms are putting mechanisms in place to recognise and support employees to cope with their workplace stressors during this difficult period.
There are six primary causes of stress at work, according to the HSE: demands, control, support, relationships, role and change. All of these areas have been impacted by the events of 2020, but perhaps none more so than support: not only our workplace connections have diminished, but so have our vital social connections. Companies should consider what extra support can be given to employees right now, whether that’s having informal, regular wellbeing conversations or providing practical support to boost engagement and the ability to work productively despite the testing circumstances.
Employers can help address the causes of workplace stress faced in today’s climate by:
- Reviewing stress at work policies: ensuring that this reflects current working conditions and challenges
- Remembering the duty of care as an employer: taking time to check on employees’ wellbeing and mental health
- Using a risk assessment that’s relevant: making sure that home-working conditions and associated risks have been adequately carried out
- Consider those with additional vulnerabilities: regular check-ins and tailored support provided as appropriate.
How to support someone returning to work (13:00)
Any member of staff that has been absent from a business for a period of time, especially as a result of work-related stress, will need careful and sensitive support to transition back into their role and successfully return to the workplace.
Keeping in contact via regular touch points throughout their absence is really important, as is agreeing a level of contact and detail that feels right to both the individual and the employer: being human and taking time to understand the cause and what they need from you to feel able to return when the time is right.
Recording mechanisms are essential, understanding what information needs to be recorded to understand and see patterns emerging. As an employer, there is also a duty of care to make reasonable adjustments and provide professional advice and support to any member of staff with a mental or physical disability - and this responsibility continues while employees are currently forced, largely, to work from home to protect themselves and others.
If a staff member has been unwell, especially for a long period of time, this can have a big impact on confidence levels. Employers should take time to understand what the individual needs to feel confident and comfortable returning to the workplace - and this is especially important in the present climate. While the vast majority of individuals may feel happy returning to a physical workplace, safe in the knowledge that employers will have taken the necessary steps to make their surroundings Covid-secure, the act of commuting via public transport remains a cause for concern for many. Openly discussing options and potential adjustments to working patterns can help to alleviate these stressors, as can checking in regularly with returning staff members.
Culture and leadership (17:10)
An effective culture and strong leadership team is absolutely crucial to mental health and positive wellbeing in the workplace: keeping it firmly on the agenda, recognising modern challenges and stressors, and putting processes in place to support both the business and its people.
Strong management is fundamental: well-trained managers who are experienced and have the time and ability to manage not only business priorities, but also people at a human level. Linked closely to this is the notion of a ‘quality’ job - one with fair pay, good leadership, a strong purpose behind it and security - and social relationships; while these are largely virtual and differ from the norm right now, the value of peer-to-peer support and social interactions has never been more pronounced.
Alongside these preventative measures, companies can also adopt reactive, responsive measures, including providing help for struggling workers (such as making reasonable adjustments to working arrangements and accessing occupational health’s understanding and expertise) and investing in delivering an ongoing health and wellbeing programme (one that addresses the holistic, financial and physical ‘pillars’ of wellbeing).
In both principle and practice, these are all closely interlinked elements. A common example of this in action right now is a team quiz held via Zoom: while on the surface little more than a social team building event, this actually does much more: it provides an engaging and informal link with management, boosts relationships, serves as a positive distraction and increases feelings of connection, while also helping people learn from one another. The digital landscape has also opened the doors to individuals fluidly moving within teams, being part of meetings and discussions that may not have been possible before.
Of course, it’s not just managers who are responsible for wellbeing: peers have a big role to play in supporting and connecting with one another. Formal wellbeing programmes are important, but informal connections built on trust, friendship and mutual interests are the glue that truly holds a workplace together.
As organisations, managers and individuals continue to recognise the importance of strong mental health, resilience and wellbeing during unsettling and unpredictable times, there is one word that stands out above all else: compassion. Compassion for one another - recognising when someone is in distress or struggling with a situation and taking steps to help - supported by compassionate leadership, is going to be absolutely essential as we all move forward into the ‘new normal’ of our working lives togetherness.
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