18 May 2020

Mental health: what can employers do to help?


When the whole coronavirus situation started looming, the last thing on our minds was mental health.

Most of us were probably concerned about our own physical health and that of our loved ones or worrying about how this was going to impact our lives in terms of freedom of movement. We were waiting to see: are we going to be impacted as in China or Italy? And the answer as we all know now was a resounding yes. As most of the world entered progressive stages of lockdown for two months or more, a lot changed in our lives. We had to suddenly put everything on hold: social gatherings, conferences, travel, simple things like meeting friends for a drink, and in some places, even going grocery shopping became a challenge. Simultaneously, a majority of us in knowledge-based jobs were forced to work from home overnight, creating a global remote workforce.

There’s no doubt these changes impacted us more than we expected, and have particularly had an effect on our mental health. After two months of being housebound, there is a lot to come to terms with. We need to learn to have conversations about mental health, so we can help each other get through this.

What is the role of the employer in all of this?

The impact of coronavirus on our professional lives

I like to distinguish between bringing mental health to work, or workplace induced mental health issues and the coronavirus situation is no different. The impact it will have on our professional lives is threefold:

First, people’s fear of the coronavirus itself. A pandemic is a situation none of us have been through before. The generations who lived through the Second World War are probably the only ones (in Western society) who have experienced hardship. The rest of us are faced with the reality of a looming disease we don’t know how to deal with, that’s killing a lot of people close to us. There is no doubt this will cause fear and anxiety in many who are either scared for their own health or of those close to them. There is also a lot of fear of the unknown.

Simultaneously many people are struggling to cope with their current situation, for example being in a home office full time. Some were not used to working from home, and for those of us who are - companies suddenly have to contend with a global remote workforce overnight. Not quite the same as having a handful of employees who are occasionally working from home. At the same time, many people have to juggle home office with homeschooling and sharing parenting responsibilities in extraordinary circumstances. Last but certainly not least, the impact of not being able to leave our homes is huge. People will be struggling with feeling cooped in, perhaps living in small spaces, and being estranged from their loved ones.

Both of these are what I refer to as “bringing mental health to work”. There is no doubt dealing with the above will impact our ability to do our jobs. Sometimes we might be feeling scared or anxious and get distracted from our work. Other times we may be feeling stressed, exhausted, or overwhelmed by our home situation making us more irritable or again preventing us from being fully focused at work.

A lot of people are having to learn how to process these emotions while continuing to show up for work and put on a brave face. We’re not used to knowing how to talk about this with one another.

We may be worried about the safety of our job, and rightly so. Lockdown has prompted a huge economic crisis: many people have stopped working because of it. For those of us who have been fortunate to keep our jobs, there is still a concern: will we be able to keep them, or will they be cut? Will we be furloughed? How long will our jobs be safe? And if we were to lose our jobs: will we be able to find another one considering a large number of unemployed people. In addition, no longer being able to connect with our colleagues face to face, learning how to work remotely, and still feeling part of a company comes with its own set of challenges. Not to mention, for those who have to keep going to work: the fear of possibly getting ill, contaminating others, and putting lives at risk.

These are what I refer to as the “workplace induced mental health issues”.

How employers can support better mental health

By now the question is no longer whether employers should support mental health in the workplace, but rather, how can they do so? Yet we are still in the very early stages of accepting this idea.

  • 76% would like their manager to check-in with them more regularly about their mental health and wellbeing, and overall performance
  • 59% felt their employer or manager was not making enough effort to check-in during lockdown
  • 66% are worried about the consequences of the crisis on their current role, and
  • 53% don’t think their company is concerned about their well-being or mental health

At the same time, because we aren’t used to discussing mental health in the workplace, it makes it difficult to bring up. The results of the poll also showed that 67% of people thought revealing a mental health issue at work would jeopardize their career - no wonder they’re not comfortable bringing it up to their managers.

With this in mind, here are some ideas on what employers can do to support the conversation, not just during corona times but also thereafter. 

1. Initiate the conversation. For people to start talking about the topic in the workplace, they have to feel enabled and comfortable. Part of this process will simply be starting to prompt the conversation. The mental health awareness week is a great opportunity for companies to shine a spotlight on it and encourage employees to think about it. 

2. Lead by example. Whether you like it or not, leaders and managers in the company have a huge impact on how others behave, which is why it’s so important for them to be championing and talking about mental health. You can talk about mental health during team meetings and 1:1s. You can continue to champion it and encourage your employees to look after themselves and their own wellbeing. The positive impact of this is overwhelming, and I speak from experience. Having worked in a place where no one cared how bad you felt, to now being regularly reminded to look after myself - I feel more empowered and less guilty if I just need to take a break.

3. Have a mental health policy. Think about it, you have a policy on sick leave don’t you? Isn’t it time to include mental health? Just because it’s more of an “invisible illness” doesn’t make it any less important. People will need to take days off; they may need time off or flexible working hours so they can make it to various appointments. By creating a policy, you are helping to destigmatize and creating a framework within which people can operate.

If you are in the UK, there are many great programs available now such as Mental Health First Aid. This allows employers to nominate employees as “mental health first aiders” in the workplace - a point of contact for others who might need help and someone who has received training on the topic, however it is essential that this is not just a tick-box exercise. 

If you are in another country, think of what sort of training you can offer to your employees so they become more familiar with the concept of mental health and feel comfortable talking about it. Considering the training you can offer managers, so they feel enabled to deal with it on a 1:1 basis.

4. Offer coaching or training - on a company-wide or 1:1 basis. Coaching can be of huge support for employees, it gives them someone external to speak to and allows them to work on issues that are important to them. It takes the burden off managers while allowing employees to grow and creating a safe space for them. In turn, this can contribute to overall better mental health in the workplace. By offering these types of services to employees, it also shows you care and you’re supportive of it.

5. Offer guidance and educational documents. At MHR we just wrote a White Paper called “Your guide to a healthier workplace”. It’s not just designed for people outside the organization, we also hope that people within MHR will find it informative and inspiring.

6. Examine your company culture. What type of work ethics are you promoting? Are you asking people to be “always-on”? And how much psychological safety is there, both on a company level and within teams? Sometimes it can be easy to forget or ignore the fact that companies are responsible for bringing on mental health issues such as burnout. But if employees are feeling overworked and undervalued, it should come as no surprise that they’re at higher risk.

The above are all just starting points for employers to think about ways in which they can support better mental health in the workplace. While the coronavirus situation is unprecedented, I for one am glad that it is bringing mental health conversations to the forefront and that it has the potential to accelerate changes in the workplace in this area.

It’s high time our work cultures and workplaces were designed with mental health in mind and that we encouraged employees to be mindful of it. Likewise, it’s high time we got better at talking about mental health with one another so we feel more comfortable with it.

Emma Brooks

Emma is a digital and social media marketer by profession, and mental health blogger in her spare time. She is on a mission to raise awareness about mental health – particularly in the workplace – and is working towards it no longer a taboo. She feels strongly that work can be more than just a 9-5 to pay the bills and in creating better experiences in the workplace. Check out her blog “That’s Mental”.

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