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Michael Brennan

October 10 is World Mental Health Day and it is important that we use this opportunity to reflect on the importance of workplace well-being as people are increasingly impacted by lockdown rules, social distancing and working from home.

Here, our Head of Business Development Michael Brennan shares his thoughts on the current pandemic, its impact on mental health and offers advice on how to support employees and achieve a positive attitude during these uncertain times.

As we adapt and learn to live with the new normal which is taking its toll on the wider population, we need to recognise that employee well-being is essential for productivity and morale.

Now, more than ever, people will inevitably experience various mental health issues as they come to terms with the recent Government announcement that restrictions will remain in place for at least a further six months.

This could manifest in the form of the stresses related to juggling work, job security, having concerns about children returning to school, contracting the virus or managing finances during this difficult time.

In fact, mental health related absence is the most common cause of long-term sickness absence in UK workplaces. Stress related absence in particular has increased, with 37% of respondents to the CIPD and Simply Health and Well-being survey saying that stress-related absence had increased in the last year.

According to the HSE, work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounts for 44% of work-related ill health and 54% of working days lost, in 2018/19 (HSE, 2019). As well as sickness absence, poor mental health at work can lead to increased staff turnover, reduced engagement and high levels of both absenteeism and presenteeism.

Early research into the health impacts of lockdown including findings of fatigue, musculoskeletal conditions, poor work/life balance, reduced exercise and increased alcohol consumption. In relation to mental health specifically, employees were reporting reduced motivation, loss of purpose and motivation, anxiety and isolation.

Evidence from previous quarantine situations, prior to the current pandemic, suggests that there are long lasting effects on mental health. These symptoms ranged from irritability and anger to depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Both the World Health Organisation and Mental Health Foundation have released advice on how people can protect their own mental health during the virus outbreak, stressing the need for people to turn to the NHS for the most up-to-date information.

While good mental health is essential for workers, it also promotes increased productivity, uniting towards a common goal, a better reputation and a healthier bottom line, which is all crucial to work towards maintaining during this unprecedented period.

Improved wellbeing at work also results in more effective communications, increased clarity in decision making, a move towards creative problem solving and keeping mistakes to a minimum. This ultimately means that everyone gains from a working culture which pays heed to mental health issues.

Implementing steps to achieve good workplace well-being will help to achieve a positive ethos, while understanding the concerns of employees and supporting them if they are showing signs of anxiety or depression.

Doing so can also help to normalise the subject, take away any stigma and encourage staff to talk more openly about their mental health.

Our advice will help you to support your employees and achieve a positive attitude during these uncertain times.

  • Managers should regularly check-in with their team members on an individual and private basis. Ideally this should be via video conferencing tools such as Zoom or Skype as this will help managers to observe signs of poor mental health. Encourage managers to have a well-being conversation and provide them with a framework or questions that they can ask their teams to ascertain their state of mind.
  • Managers should be trained on the potential signs of poor well-being and mental health, and know how to handle a disclosure of a mental health condition. Managers do not need to become mental health experts but should be able to identify and refer when necessary. Where managers are concerned about the mental health of their employees, they should signpost to relevant support services. HR should ensure that managers are briefed on any services that are available, such as Occupational Health and EAPs.
  • Managers can encourage employees to take care of their well-being and mental health by acting as an effective role model, by being open and transparent about how they look after themselves at this time. They should encourage their team members to undertake well-being activities and share well-being and mental health messages.
  • Connecting people with others supports good mental health. Managers should take regular opportunities to bring employees together virtually via WhatsApp and Houseparty. As well as work-related meetings, encourage social connections through social media or informal online meetings, perhaps in the form of a Friday afternoon pub quiz. To avoid overwhelming people, taking part should always be optional.
  • Continue to provide employees with ways to connect with colleagues while working from home or social distancing. This could involve promoting online communities, virtual social groups and using social media, all of which can all help to connect people.
  • There are many reasons in the current situation why employees may be unable to be as productive as they would be under normal circumstances. Managers should be sensitive to this and recognise that expectations may need to be adjusted in the short-term. Existing targets, workloads and deadlines should be adjusted to take into account the changing context.
  • Opportunities for learning, training and upskilling up can boost well-being and provide purpose and structure to the day, especially for any employees on furlough. Managers can encourage optional learning while working from home.
  • Arrange a time to have a conversation with the employee when they are working from home and try to conduct this through an online meeting. Let the employee choose the time to ensure that it is convenient and they will not be interrupted.
  • Embed confidentiality in those conversations by reassuring employees that their personal information will be treated sensitively.
  • Encourage people to talk and to take up mental health and well-being support. This could be the simple act of downloading apps such as Calm or Headspace.
  • Discuss a plan for support which includes reasonable adjustments or practical support and a time period for review. Discuss what signs and symptoms or triggers to be aware of and the possible impacts on work. Plans will need to be flexible as mental health conditions may fluctuate.
  • Reassure employees by making it clear that no assumptions will be made about their mental health and that your business will take steps to provide the necessary support.
  • Send out well-being surveys often to discover how your employees are feeling. These questionnaires can also help to identify changes in attitude and mood and highlight areas which require more attention.
  • Educate staff members around how COVID-19 impacts your business directly, be it in the form of redundancies or pay cuts. Doing so will help to reduce any concerns or feeling of unrest which might impact a person’s mental health. Take steps to allow for real-time employee feedback and provide support accordingly.
  • Offer remote training for any new working from home technology or software requirements and make sure employees have the tools in place to do the job properly, such as a VPN or extra bandwidth.
  • Where employees started work for your organisation in the time just prior to, or even during, lockdown, they may need a re-induction into the workplace to help them feel connected and engaged with other team members.
  • Brief managers on the potential mental health implications of COVID-19 and their specific roles and responsibilities in relation to supporting staff.
  • Communicate regularly on wellbeing and mental health support, wherever possible supported by activities that encourage physical, mental, financial and social wellbeing.
  • Provide mental health awareness raising activities and work towards a culture where it is acceptable to talk about and seek support for poor mental health.
  • Learn to recognise the signs which might point to a decline in mental health, such as working long hours and not taking breaks, increased sickness absence or lateness, mood changes, withdrawal, confusion, anger and uncharacteristic performance issues.
  • Offer work/life balance support in the form of coaching, guidance or training.
  • Provide mental health awareness activities for the wider organisation. These can take various forms including promotion of national events, workshops or awareness campaigns.
  • Create a mental health toolkit with accompanying literature and arrange a call to help your employees get to know the techniques, tools and coping mechanisms.
  • When working from home, encourage your staff to take screen breaks, exercise, eat well and to finish work at a certain time without the expectation to check emails well into the evening. This will help to ensure that lines between their personal and professional lives do not become blurred.
  • Support the return to the workplace with a detailed communication plan covering practical issues such as hygiene and approach to maintaining social distancing. Make sure that you provide health, safety and hygiene measures, such as PPE where required and handwashing facilities and hand sanitiser. Furnish people with the means to work according to social distancing guidelines, by making sure desks are at least two metres apart, partitions are installed and a one-way system is adhered to. Toilet and kitchen facilities should be kept clean. There should be areas where people can conduct a private meeting if they have any concerns they would like to raise about returning to work.
  • Consider phased returns to work, even where the employee is working from home and not returning to a physical workplace. Conduct a formal return to work meeting, even if this is via an online meeting or phone call.
  • Discuss the support the employee needs to help them to make a successful return and support their mental health. This should include the role of the manager and how they can help.
  • Establish an internal network of well-being or mental health champions who can support the organisation.

Making it a priority to pay heed to mental health disorders by integrating a well-being ethos into your organisation will help to motivate your employees while making sure that you have the tools in place to weather this particular storm.

Please feel free to speak to our team about the current climate and your recruitment requirements. Contact: mbrennan@merje.com.