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Looking out for the mental well-being of your employees should not be a temporary Covid thing. The Covid impact is lasting in any event, but mental well-being was already a big workplace issue before the pandemic.
It’s World Well-being Week and a good time to ask whether we have learned anything about prioritising our health at work from the pandemic or whether we are simply going back to the way things were. Some research shows that mental health has been seen as a temporary thing for some employers over the last two years and they now feel they can take their eye off the ball.
Yet statistics show the mental health impact of the pandemic is by no means over with mental well-being already a huge issue before Covid.
The Stevenson/Farmer review, Thriving at Work, in October 2017 highlighted that an estimated 300,000 people lost their jobs each year due to mental ill-health pre-pandemic. Stress has been one of the top work-related factors that affect the health of adults in the UK in the last decade.
That is pre-pandemic, the situation is now much worse, but how does this translate to the workplace?
Many are struggling with poor mental health, burnout and anxiety. In April 2021 McKinsey stated that at least 49% of respondents to a survey said they feel somewhat burned out. Work-related mental ill-health was costing UK businesses up to £45 billion in 2019, but those numbers are now £56 billion a year according to Deloitte UK, an increase of around 25%. This is likely to be as a result of staff turnover, absenteeism and the negative impact on productivity and profits for staff who are unable to cope due to mental health issues.
It’s not just those in work that are suffering – it’s the future workforce – a recent report from the Resolution Foundation, for instance, showed that the number of young men who are now economically inactive has risen sharply in recent years, with health issues being a big reason and mental health being a major factor in these. Covid and the cost of living crisis are likely to have made this worse.
But there are ways to improve the situation. According to the Office for National Statistics (ons.gov.uk) in February 2022, 78% of those who worked from home in some capacity said that being able to work from home gave them an improved work-life balance and 47% also reported improved well-being. Of course, working from home is not possible or desirable for all and, for some working from home increases a sense of isolation, although reports of remote working increasing mental health issues during Covid have to be viewed in a context where everyone was isolated from everyone else. It could be argued that being able to work helped to keep us connected in some way.
The pandemic also taught many to prioritise work/ life balance and re-introduced us to more outdoor pursuits and the importance of community and purpose. This is in part the reason for many older people choosing early retirement or to change professions.
Thom Dennis, CEO of Serenity In Leadership, says we are entering a new era of addressing mental health. “Whilst there has been some success over the last 10 years in opening up dialogue about mental health, breaking down the stigma, and some employers are increasingly addressing trauma, anxiety and stress at work, there is a huge way to go. Long gone is the time when businesses were not involved in their team’s health, and employees just came to work, clocked in, did their work and went home again. It really is time for businesses to understand the importance of well-being and in particular, mental health, because so many more of us are suffering and well-being has never been so important to our lives and livelihoods.
“We need to learn the lessons about well-being that the pandemic taught us and not just try to go back to the way things were. Going backwards is a losing battle anyway which won’t work as workers have different and greater expectations than they had pre-pandemic, and you will get push back. It is in the business’s interest to help too. We have been resilient, but we need time to heal and be strong for the next lot of upheavals, and the solution is multi-faceted.”
Naomi Glover, an applied neuroscience and brain health specialist, who also runs training, coaching and consultancy company Neuro-Informed Ltd says: “Record numbers of people experienced isolation, increased stress, anxiety, trauma and grief. There are long-term dangers associated with isolation and so the partial return to the office is valuable for many, particularly younger people. But for employees over 40, the desire to continue working remotely is compelling and may help reduce stress and burnout. One of the issues facing employers is they need to address a spectrum of mental well-being needs because different people have been affected in different ways.”
Serenity in Leadership has put together some suggestions for what employers can do to prioritise well-being and good mental health at work.
1) Don’t wait for the tipping point. Responsibility and relationships are at the heart of caring for colleagues. Leaders need to show real empathy and deal with employee uncertainty and health issues with compassion. Look for the signs of burnout, long term anxiety, pressures, trauma and grief. Start conversations with employees and see how best you can meet their needs. Ensure your work culture does not support long-term working out of hours, holidays not being taken and poor work/life balance.
2) Educate and promote well-being at work. McKinsey stated that 47% of respondents want increased focus to be on employee well-being. The pandemic has provided valuable insights into how we can recover, maintain and even optimise our mental health and well-being through better food choices, meditation, yoga, social connections, exercise, being in nature and life-long learning. What’s more, taking these positive steps doesn’t just improve your mental health and well-being, it also increases your brain performance, cognitive function and helps to futureproof your brain.
3) Check for inequality. For example, hypothetically if women want more flexibility and to work from home, businesses need to ensure men are not getting the promotions in the meanwhile because they are more visible physically at work.
4) Pay well to give financial security. The cost of living crisis means many workers are grappling with the rising cost of living and struggling to make ends meet. Leaders must do what they can to ensure a fair, equal wage.
5) Don’t suppress trauma in organisations. A positive mindset can help but doesn’t solve all problems. Trauma, anxiety and fear cannot be left unaddressed. An empathic corporate leadership will put its people first, rather than see looking after them as a distraction.
6) Ensure your managers take time off. Your managers are role models and set the culture in their area of responsibility. If they are not taking holidays, that puts all sorts of pressure on those who report to them and can create a very unhealthy atmosphere. Remember also that a manager who lives alone might have a different view on, and approach to life compared to someone who has children. Both managers need to bring curiosity and an openness to empathy.
7) Ensure psychological safety so people can reach out. This gives individuals permission to talk about what is on their minds because they feel included, supported and safe and encouraged to not suppress themselves. When people feel safe they are more likely to bring their entire self to work (and that’s what we want).
8) Build community relations internally and externally. Encourage full participation, inclusion, and respect, and build mutual understanding, especially across any interpersonal and cultural divides. Define your values, optimise learning from one another, foster connections, organise training and full team events which everyone can attend.
9) Flexibility. According to a McKinsey survey, 30% of respondents say they are likely to switch jobs if returned to full onsite work. Leaders need to think about the needs of the individual as well as the requirements of the business before they lose valuable talent. The main thing is to give everyone a very clear lead which takes in the needs of both.
10) Build resilience by empowering. People with the most resilience find a way to emotionally heal and move forward from stress or trauma. Empowering your team often helps them build resilience. Let people play to their strengths. Have role models, mentors, collaborations, partnerships and a plan that can be continually adapted because resilience is built on life experiences and the world is constantly changing.