Every day when I log on to social media, it seems like the proportion of posts talking about employee mental health and wellbeing is increasing exponentially, and my feelings are torn on this. Of course, I’m delighted this crucial topic is getting the attention it deserves. On the flip side, I’m disappointed it took so long and worried it will still be a relative ‘flash in the pan’ as we hopefully return to “normal” working in the coming months.
Clearly the pandemic has negatively impacted mental wellbeing across the board, so the recent focus is understandable. According to a Qualtrics study, 66.9% have reported higher stress, and 57.2% higher anxiety since Covid. Additionally, 44.4% of those who are, or have been, working from home say their mental health has declined.
However, all this isn’t completely new. Did you know that back in 2018, it was reported by the NHS that 1 in 6 employees experienced mental health problems within the workplace; 15.4 million working days were lost to stress, depression and anxiety; and it was estimated that poor mental health carried an economic and social cost of £105 billion a year in England alone. Following this trend, in 2019 we saw an increase in registered suicides in England and Wales, seeing more than 15 people taking their own lives every single day.
Furthermore, these numbers are likely to continue to grow well after we’ve taken the face masks off, so we can’t afford to stop. We must take advantage of the culture shift this pandemic has prompted. There’s no single answer on how to go about creating a lasting cultural change, but I’d like to offer up some of the best practices I’ve personally seen in place with clients and contacts.
- Developing an understanding of mental health across the team– whether that’s investing in developing Mental Health First Aiders or simply taking the time to educate team members that mental health is something we all have and that it changes over time; helping them to recognise the common signs of stress, depression or anxiety; and giving them the confidence to initiate a conversation. Revisiting the aforementioned Qualtrics study, 58% of workers state they are comfortable with their manager discussing mental health, and 41.0% want their manager to proactively ask them about it, so providing appropriate tools and knowledge to best deal with these conversations would be a great place to start.
- Promoting an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) – many organisations have these in place without fully utilising them, which is such a shame given the important role they can play in providing professional support to individuals when they need it most. One of our clients recognised the low usage of their EAP back in 2018 and made a concerted effort to signpost employees to it. They went from 60 colleagues calling the EAP line for advice in 2018 to 480 calls in 2019; and from 12% of callers being male in 2018 up to 25% in 2019. Who knows how many potential serious mental health issues they stopped in their tracks or perhaps even how many lives they saved.
- Encouraging self-help– one of the most powerful actions I’ve seen is encouraging individuals to help themselves where possible, by identifying activities that enhance their wellbeing. We personally direct clients to use the NHS-recommended “5 steps to mental wellbeing” and have found (through use within our own team!) that creating personal and team action plans for each step is a simple and effective way to stay focussed. The action plans must be dynamic for this to work though, so we review them at weekly team meetings to challenge each other where we aren’t meeting the commitment we made to ourselves, and to update our plans.
- ‘Good old-fashioned’ leadership development – we’ve found that a wider look at leadership plays a key role, as the two are intrinsically linked. Investing in developing leaders for the modern work environment and today’s workforce will have a significant impact on employee wellbeing. CIPD reports that workplaces and managers that focus on staff wellbeing see an increase in employee morale and engagement (44%), a healthier and more inclusive culture (35%) and a lower sickness absence (31%). We’ve found four areas in particular to have the greatest impact – Flexibility, Authenticity, Connection, and Encouragement so we often talk about ‘leading with F.A.C.E.’ within our leadership programmes.
- Creating psychological safety – a work environment where everyone feels safe to be themselves – the good, the bad and the ugly – is essential to employee wellbeing. In addition to displaying leadership behaviours for the modern workplace, as addressed above, a focus on inclusion is critical. An environment where everyone in the team is respected, where their ideas are listened to and where they are allowed to make mistakes sends the most powerful of messages about how much they are valued by the organisation, and in turn helps to build psychological contracts and build commitment to the business.
I sincerely hope that one positive outcome of such a challenging year is a mindset shift which positively changes the way we look after our people for the long haul, and I hope these tips help some of you to begin that journey.
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to discuss other ways to support the wellbeing of your teams or find out about our accredited Mental Health First Aid courses.