Mental health must be top of the agenda as we navigate the changing workplace

Industry experts share advice on what employers can do to support employee wellbeing

As organisations look to adopt a more permanent style of working following COVID-19, they must ensure that mental health support isn’t left by the wayside; a group of industry experts have come together to offer DiversityQ their advice for employers at this crucial time.

Mental Health Awareness Week, which aims to initiate conversations about mental health and the things in our daily lives that can affect it, is a timely memo for organisations as they reimagine the world of work.

From ‘post-lockdown’ anxiety about returning to the office or managing the real-life demands of long-term remote working to navigating a hybrid work model – employees may experience a variety of new challenges that impact their wellbeing in the coming months.

As workplaces adapt to their ‘new normal’, it is crucial that employers keep mental health top of the agenda. Indeed, with a total of 17.9 million working days lost due to work-related stress, depression, or anxiety in 2019/20, the scale of the challenge employers face in providing effective wellbeing support is clear.

This Mental Health Awareness Week, DiversityQ spoke to five industry experts about how to tailor mental health help to the changing workplace.

1. Offer extra support

“As many companies return to the physical workspace, employers must consider how to offer extra support to any employees feeling nervous about returning to work,” said Kathryn Barnes, Employment Counsel EMEA at Globalization Partners.

“Helping to quell ‘post-lockdown anxiety’ starts with cultivating an open culture where employees feel comfortable speaking openly and confidentially about any concerns they may have. Only by recognising and understanding the problem can employers effectively review ways to support employees and help alleviate stress.”

With a considerable number of businesses now embracing a hybrid approach to work, “employers will need to ensure their people are appropriately equipped to deal with the real-life demands of long-term remote working as well as creating a hybrid workplace,” added Kleopatra Kivrakidou, Channel Marketing Manager EMEA at Ergotron.

“Encourage employees to log off at the end of the day at the right time and provide opportunities for employees to take time out to socialise with their colleagues (virtually or in-person). Opportunities to get away from the screen to talk to other staff members are good for encouraging conversation and mental support.

“With UK organisations looking to put remote hybrid working opportunities permanently on the workplace agenda, providing appropriate desks and seating that preserve spinal health and monitor arms that make it easier for people to position screens in ways that reduce eye and neck strain will be key to preserving the wellbeing of employees for the long term.”

2. Promote good mental health for all

According to recent research, 74% of UK adults felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope: “Now more than ever, employers need to raise the profile of workplace wellbeing and implement programmes that will support employees, both virtually and in-person,” explained Agata Nowakowska, AVP EMEA, Skillsoft.

“Organisations need to view employee wellbeing as a strategic priority, supporting employees dealing with stress by equipping them with the awareness and resources they need to nurture their own mental health. Whether it’s providing access to health services, such as mobile apps where employees can ask for assistance from professionals, or hosting a virtual yoga class – there are many ways organisations can support employee wellbeing and promote good mental health for all.”

It is also important that employers recognise how certain employees may be worse affected by stress or mental ill-health than others – and find ways to help support them and manage these additional burdens; research from TrustRadius suggests that 57% of women in tech feel burned out at work this year, compared to 36% of men.

“Whilst it’s not healthy to perpetuate a ‘men vs women’ attitude, women at work have more hurdles to overcome, and so I believe this is a reflective statistic,” highlighted Sara Hamilton, Deputy Director of Product and Managed Services, Mango Solutions. “For example, as a woman in tech, you have to work harder to show or prove your worth than your male counterparts. Women also tend to feel more heavily scrutinised for things like sick leave for physical or mental health because it can appear as ‘weakness’, and so they push on when they shouldn’t.

“To help address this issue, employers should emphasise how there is no heroism in martyrdom or being seen to be working – the real money is in working effectively and sustainably.”

3. Build flexibility into long-term outlook

Mental health awareness has taken on a new significance for Britain’s working-age population over the last year. However, “what many businesses have realised is that on the whole, the move to flexible working has been a positive one,” concluded Martin Taylor, Deputy CEO at Content Guru.

“Indeed, if there were anything that I’d change about our pre-pandemic situation, it would be to have introduced more flexible working beforehand. I’d never been a big believer in working from home and had reservations that it hindered creativity and productivity. To my surprise, productivity in many teams went up almost straight away and stayed there. In the end, only two colleagues out of over 300 said they didn’t see any benefit from being at home. Generally, pretty much everyone found it better for family life and fitness. Many have used the new flexibility to focus on their health.

“However, most businesses are now at the point where they could do with being together more. Having 20 or 30 colleagues meeting over Zoom is just not the same as those coming together in a room, buzzing on caffeine and writing all over the glass walls! What is important now is that business leaders recognise the value that flexible working patterns have offered employees over the last year. Any plan to return employees to the office should focus on maintaining the most effective aspects of remote working. The pandemic has had plenty of negative effects. Still, if businesses can bake flexibility into their long-term outlook, we’ll have a happier, healthier, and more productive workforce long into the future.”
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