In the UK, many of those who identify as disabled live with invisible illnesses such as diabetes, chronic pain, and mental wellbeing issues. Specifically, mental health and wellbeing issues represent one of the largest reasons to identify as disabled in the UK.
With levels of anxiety increasing during the pandemic, addressing mental health issues may be more important than ever. Recent figures from Mind Cymru revealed that nearly two in three adults believe their mental health and wellbeing has gotten worse since the first national lockdown in March 2020.
The impact of COVID-19 and remote working on mental health
Hidden conditions such as mental wellbeing issues are generally misunderstood in the workplace, and remote working has made it more difficult to identify among colleagues.
For many, the colleagues we once saw on an everyday basis have been replaced by 2D versions of themselves that we only interact with through a computer screen. It’s easy to forget that, while we all might be struggling, those with existing mental health conditions are finding those issues exacerbated and more difficult to deal with.
This lack of everyday, face-to-face contact is also contributing to managers being unaware of whether – and how – their staff are struggling. Difficulties in reading body language via a computer screen, increasing work pressures and less ‘informal’ time spent speaking to staff mean it is becoming increasingly difficult for employers to identify and appropriately support those employees who are not coping.
It is crucial managers recognise the importance of mental health in the workplace and understand how to best support an employee struggling with their mental health.
Key interventions to promote good staff mental health
I would say the most positive step an employer could make is to ensure that provisions and practices are in place to improve the mental health and wellbeing of all employees.
Employers have a duty of care for their staff; they are responsible for understanding what causes stress and anxiety within their teams. Proactively limiting these triggers or making reasonable adjustments in the workplace can ensure staff can do their jobs effectively
When it comes to promoting good wellbeing at work and supporting colleagues with mental health conditions and other hidden impairments in the workplace, certain reasonable adjustments can make the world of difference, for instance, developing a supportive culture and providing staff with opportunities to discuss their wellbeing in an environment in which they feel comfortable doing so.
Having policies or practices in place that reflect this can also help ensure that mental health conditions and other hidden impairments are not perceived as a failure.
To remove those barriers for me, having an open conversation was key as well as the feeling of being heard. The way employers communicate with staff is a key factor in shaping how employees respond when they’re experiencing stress and poor mental health.
Managers should cultivate open and supportive relationships with their employees by establishing regular and informal ‘check-ins’ when working remotely.
Celebrating small achievements is especially important in the current climate. When working in the office, we need to ensure we’re engaging in casual celebrations or gestures, like making a colleague a cup of tea after a difficult meeting.
With many of us now sitting behind a screen, we’re slipping into a culture of isolation, working alone and not having that face-to-face time to voice appreciation for others. It’s important that we replicate face-to-face gestures of encouragement online, such as using the awards feature on Teams to let a colleague know they’ve done a good job, or dropping them a line to ensure they know they’re appreciated.
The pandemic has also seen the boundaries between professional and personal life blur. In general, many workers have experienced higher workloads due to furloughed staff members as well as fewer social opportunities outside of work due to COVID-19 restrictions. This has led to many of us working longer hours and socialising less outside of work, leaving us feeling stressed.
Those working from home have been operating out of their personal space which can make it difficult to establish a clear line between work and home life. Without the ritual of leaving a place of work or having the physical distance between home and the office, it’s increasingly hard to switch off.
For those who have been working in face-to-face environments, stresses around safety and wellbeing have also become heightened during the pandemic, with frontline key worker staff across many sectors feeling the strain.
It is, in my opinion, important for employers to demonstrate that staff wellbeing and work-life balance is a priority. Whether that be clarifying it is understood that people may not be online when emails are sent in the evening or simply promoting this message is by encouraging your team to take short breaks throughout the day.
Adjusting to the impacts of COVID-19 personally and professionally has brought immense pressure and the need to “push through”. Therefore I believe this is the perfect time for employers and managers to be discussing well-being with their employees. Championing staff to voice their concerns and finding constructive solutions has never been more necessary.
For employers in Wales, you have access to a number of programmes providing specialised resources and services to help you better support your team’s mental health.
Workplace mental health – services in Wales
Personally, I have accessed support in the past from the In Work Support Service which is available in northwest and southwest Wales and is being extended to support people absent from work due to sickness in Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion. The service is designed to help employed people in Wales manage mental health and physical conditions by providing them with rapid access to tailored occupational therapy and physiotherapy.
If a member of your team is struggling with their mental health, they can contact the service and speak directly to a specialist adviser to get the additional support or help they need. It offers free support and training to micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, including bespoke support to help employers identify the wellbeing needs of their workforce, and implement a programme of support for their employees.
I have struggled with my mental health and at times it has had an impact on my work life. I have benefitted from employers taking actions and steps to help their staff’s mental health – from informal check-ins with managers to companies openly championing a healthy work-life balance. In this regard, I also found the In Work Support Service to be especially helpful. It was suggested to me by my employer when I was struggling with my mental health during a particularly pressured time at work. The additional support took the onus off my manager and acted as a friendly face and point of contact I could talk things through with.
In addition to the In Work Support Service, the Welsh Government funds a range of other support initiatives including Healthy Working Wales, a programme of work delivered by Public Health Wales. The programme helps employers to develop and sustain environments, policies and cultures that promote good health and support the appropriate and timely return to work of those who are absent from work due to sickness.
The Welsh Government has extended support for low-level mental health issues. The support is open to all and doesn’t need a referral from a health professional. More information is available on the 111 website here.
For more information on how your business can attract, recruit, and retain disabled employees, including those with mental health and/or other hidden conditions, contact the Disabled People’s Employment Champions by emailing DPEC@gov.wales or visit Skills Gateway for Business.
Holly MacDougall-Corbin has been appointed as a Disabled People’s Employment Champion by the Welsh Government. Holly is working in partnership with the Business Wales service to offer businesses bespoke advice on how they can become a more inclusive employer by attracting, recruiting and retaining disabled employees.