Maintaining momentum on workplace mental health

Ahead of World Mental Health Day, the Business Disability Forum emphasises the need to prioritise mental wellbeing in the virtual workplace

As we mark World Mental Health Day (10 October), Business Disability Forum’s Head of Campaigns and Legal, Bela Gor, considers the ongoing impact of the pandemic on workplace mental wellbeing.

World Mental Health Day this year is, arguably, the most significant ever. An opportunity for us to reflect on the impact of the ongoing pandemic on our collective mental health and to support the World Health Organisation’s call for greater investment in mental health, going forwards.

These have undoubtedly been challenging times. For many, concerns about physical health have been coupled with financial worries and the need to work or study in a different and more socially isolated way. For others, particularly key workers, work has demanded a selfless commitment to serve others, sometimes at great personal cost.

A greater focus on mental health at work

There are some positive signs, however, in the midst of these difficulties. Research conducted by Business Disability Forum found that looking after staff mental health and wellbeing was the primary concern for our Members as they responded to the pandemic.

This is a point borne out in new research from Business in the Community (BITC) and which will be discussed at the Business Disability Forum’s virtual conference, next week, sponsored by HSBC.

We will also be discussing how we maintain the momentum on mental wellbeing when we have at least another six months ahead of us living with the pandemic and its ongoing effects on our lives.

In the early days of lockdown, there was a raft of initiatives to support people who might never have worked from home before. Now that we seem to be in this for the long haul, however, the regular Thursday night quizzes and virtual drinks might be fading away. The situation for many of us has not changed, but the nature of support might need to. There is undoubtedly screen fatigue. People are tired of video conference meetings for work and might not want more screen-based meetings outside of work.

Pre-pandemic, many employers were good at workplace health and wellbeing initiatives such as book clubs and physical health improvements such as getting in 10,000 steps by walking together at lunchtime. Now is the time to find a new rhythm of initiatives to reflect the way we live and work now. It is still possible to walk with your colleagues or share books– just not in person. Technology might have to be used to share these activities, but it doesn’t have to be by way of meetings.

Difficult times ahead

But we cannot deny that there are difficult times ahead.

As winter draws in, some of us will find ourselves facing redundancy as a deep recession grips the World. In the UK, the Chancellor’s furlough scheme comes to an end on 31 October, and the new job scheme may not save all jobs. With redundancy there often comes rising debt and the prospect of losing homes. This all comes alongside the prospect of Christmas alone or far away from loved ones.

Employers may have little option but to lay people off but should consider whether they can provide support for employees in the period before or after they leave. This is the time to think creatively.

Many Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) extend to family members. Make staff aware of this. Employers could also consider extending the scheme to people who are no longer employed by them or to people in their supply chain. But keep in mind that there may be some tax implications for the individual.

Employers should also think about the demographics of their workforce. While everyone will suffer in these circumstances, the statistics show that men are more likely to take their own lives than women. Are there sources of support you can direct your male employees to such as Andy’s Man Club or Mind the Men?

Women are far more likely to be a victim/survivor of domestic abuse (although by no means exclusively). With more colleagues working from home, employers should consider confidential ways for staff to report abuse and, if they can, provide a means of escape, such as a hotel room? Many employers have business arrangements with hotel groups which have not been used in recent months due to travel restrictions. Anyone who leaves their home in these circumstances is, however, likely to need ongoing support. Employers can help by signposting colleagues to legal, medical and counselling services.

Colleagues experiencing grief might also need more support from their employer. The added complications now involved in arranging a funeral mean that the healing process may be prolonged. Offer additional compassionate leave and consider ways in which colleagues can be supported online, such as online condolence books and setting up giving in-memory pages.

Thinking differently about mental wellbeing

As we look to the future, we need to think differently about how we support mental wellbeing at work. The world may never go back to the way it was before COVID-19. We need to respond creatively to these new needs to make sure the momentum on mental health is maintained.

Business Disability Forum’s Virtual Conference, Disability Today and Tomorrow, is taking place on 14 and 15 October.
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