Thom Dennis, Founder of Serenity in Leadership, explores how employers can better support the mental health of their workforce after a year of trauma and seismic change due to COVID-19.
After unprecedented global change and trauma, where many of us became ill, developed long-term chronic symptoms, lost loved ones, lost jobs, and weren’t able to socialise, mental health has never been more important.
The workplace mental health problem
Today, many employees still worry about redundancy, face a lack of opportunities, or suffer from bullying, harassment, or workplace stress.
Mental health is the number one reason cited for sick days in the UK and is on the rise. Before the pandemic even took its stranglehold in the UK, it was estimated by Deloitte in January 2020 that mental health issues cost UK employers up to £45 billion a year.
Today the additional cost of the pandemic on mental health is not yet fully known or quantified but 18-24-year-olds, the unemployed, single parents, and those with long-term disability or pre-existing mental health problems are more likely to be suffering from new mental health issues.
Recent months have also seen a spike in workplace burnout, with research suggesting that symptoms of burnout increased by 24% in UK employees in 2020. Many employees struggle with a lack of sleep and then chronic daytime fatigue, feel depleted, irritable, resentful, anxious, or depressed, have trouble focusing, and have blurred lines between work and home life.
But health is not just physical. Mental health affects every aspect of someone’s life, including their work. If that isn’t enough to make us do something, the hidden costs of an unhealthy working environment come to enormous sums that no business can afford to ignore.
Improving the mental health of your workforce today
Every business can support struggling employees and can proactively ensure that being at work is not part of the problem, particularly as things are still likely to be more difficult than usual this winter in the health arena. Here’s what you can do.
1. Create a culture that supports mental health
Most employees still feel they cannot address their mental health issues with management and that it will count against them. We need to move away from a culture that says if you are overwhelmed or have too much on your plate, it is a sign of weakness. An open workplace culture that approaches mental health openly and without judgement encourages their staff to be honest about their situation.
2. Implement a mental health policy and programme
This should include a definition of mental health, the signs to spot someone struggling, and clear strategies to support employees experiencing problems. Wellbeing programmes are recognised tools to manage mental health in the workplace, including offering professional advice on mental health-related topics and pressures such as family or health problems, bereavement, and debt.
3. Teach staff to spot warning signs
This is to help prevent an employee’s mental health from spiralling. Offer mental health support to an employee if you notice changes in their behaviour, such as if they appear overly tired, anxious and withdrawn, or there is a decrease in their motivation, focus, creativity, or productivity.
4. Ensure confidentiality
Employees need to feel reassured that their personal information will not be shared with anyone they don’t want it to be.
5. Don’t burnout your employees
Promote a healthy workplace environment that empowers staff and allows employees to thrive. Don’t ask your employees to burn the candles at both ends. Respect their weekends and their time once they have finished work for the day. Allow them to subsequently take time off if they have had to work longer hours for an acute pressured period. Encourage them to take their holidays.
6. Don’t ignore diverse hiring
Actively choose diverse candidates to improve the atmosphere and culture of a business; in addition to all the commercial reasons, it’s good to have a team rich in different experiences, skills, and knowledge.
7. Take a ‘temperature check’
If you are a manager, your job is your team, and looking after them first and foremost will drive creativity, profit, performance, and productivity. Regularly check in with staff to see how things can be done better to support them, make sure workloads are balanced, and encourage collaboration on projects and mentoring.
In this article, you learned that:
- Workplace mental health issues were forecast to be costly to companies before the pandemic.
- Certain groups including younger people and those with disabilities are more vulnerable to pandemic-related mental health issues.
- Spotting mental health warning signs in staff early can stem the damage.
Thom Dennis is CEO of organisational transformation consultant Serenity in Leadership.