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Focus on Mental Health to Gain Competitive Advantage

One of the long lasting effects of the COVID pandemic is the impact it has had, and will continue to have on the mental health of many people.

Over the last 12 months people have been living through a period of uncertainty, stress and anxiety due to job and financial security concerns, health worries, lack of social contact and interaction and in some cases, very demanding workloads, whilst also juggling caring and home schooling responsibilities.

The Office for National Statistics reported in the run-up to the first lockdown, roughly 10% of people showed moderate to severe symptoms, compared with 19% in June 2020. For the 16-39 age group this increased to 31%, up from 10.9%. The impact of the pandemic should not be a surprise as it is well documented that mental health is significantly impacted following disasters and previous viral pandemics, and this will be the case as we move forwards.

At the same time, businesses have been facing huge challenges to survive with lockdown restrictions or forced closures, having a major impact in many cases. The DMP Survey in October 2020, reported that sales were 17% lower than would typically be expected in Q3 in 2020, with employment being 8% lower and investment 24% lower. There are also those who have seen a huge growth in demand due to lockdown putting additional pressure on them to deliver and meet customer needs whilst coping with staff sickness and availability.

As we emerge from lockdown restrictions, along the current roadmap, businesses are keen to start to rebuild and refocus for the future. To do this, they will be relying on their teams who may have worked throughout the pandemic, or been furloughed and now returning to the workplace, often after a long period out of the business.

If businesses fail to appreciate the emotional rollercoaster many employees and workers have been on over this period, and don’t acknowledge and address the inevitable impact this will have had on mental health, they will struggle to successfully emerge from this pandemic.

Even where businesses do recognise the importance of this, they also face the challenge of their employees feeling able to be open with them about any mental health issues they may be experiencing. Whilst this has always been the case to a certain extent, concerns around job security will undoubtedly result in many feeling that they can’t share any issues in case this can have a detrimental impact on their employability and their future career progression.

So as an employer what can you do to encourage employees to open up about their mental health and provide relevant support?

Talk to your employees – have 121s with your staff, giving them the opportunity to raise concerns or seek help, and to ask for ideas on what kind of support they feel would be beneficial to employees.

Management training – don’t assume managers will have the skills to have conversations around mental health. Provide training so they are aware of potential issues and how these might manifest in people so they can spot signs and signpost people to relevant support where applicable and to explore potential internal options to support their teams. And don’t forget to provide support to managers as well as they may be dealing with their own mental health issues during this time.

Return to work programme – for those furloughed or returning to the office after working from home (WFH) consider refresher training where appropriate, a buddy system, company updates on the strategy going forwards and phased returns if appropriate and feasible.

Flexibility – ensure this is available to all where appropriate and consider a new hybrid model of working to combine WFH and in the office; also consider phased return to work or flexible start times for those either furloughed or returning to the office environment who have become used to a different working pattern and sleep patterns.

EAP reports – If you have an employee assistance programme in place, review reports to see what are the common issues employees from your business are seeking help with. Consider introducing an EAP programme. Many cost effective solutions for SME’s have become available as a result of the pandemic.

Review benefits – review the benefits you currently offer to see whether these are appropriate, provide adequate support and are being utilised. Look at how these are communicated and consider adding additional services such as psychological counselling/support.

Team boundaries – working from home has led to blurred boundaries between home and work life. Encourage teams to agree ways of working going forwards so employees can achieve a healthy workplace balance. This may include agreeing set hours for sending or scheduling work related emails, introducing a zoom free day each week as some organisations have recently introduced, and ensuring there is time for social activities and interaction.

Wellbeing programmes – whilst a focus on mental health is critical at the moment, a proactive preventative approach to wellbeing in general is important to try and prevent issues from manifesting in the first place. Programmes can have monthly themes, including topics such as financial wellbeing, building resilience, time management to achieve greater work life balance for example.

Role models and sharing stories – a powerful method to encourage people to open up around mental health is through role models. Ensure leaders and managers are leading by example through respecting and demonstrating adherence to boundaries and providing support when employees seek help. Even more powerful, is where leaders share their own mental health issues and how they have addressed these. This can be done in a variety of ways – from sponsoring certain initiatives they have a personal connection with, to telling their own stories about struggles through company updates or other company communication channels.

Mental health issues will be something many of us will be struggling with going forwards, as we all process the challenging period we have just been through, and many will continue to be impacted from a financial and security perspective.

By recognising the impact on their employee’s mental health and providing support with these issues, employers will not only be doing the right thing by their people, they will also be building the loyalty of their employees and ultimately strengthening their business for the future.

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