Whether we see a quick or gradual return to physical workplaces over the coming weeks, mental health and wellbeing is going to need to be high on the agenda. Ama Afrifa-Tchie outlines five changes where OH leadership may make a difference.
As 19 July approaches, next week’s date for the easing of lockdown restrictions, many employers and employees will be thinking about the office return.
Covid-19 and return to work
There will be mixed emotions. Some people will be keen to get back into the office and others will be anxious or reluctant to return. As we navigate out of this period, organisations must consider what their working practices will look like going forward and how to support employees with the transition.
Now is the time to evaluate what is working when it comes to employee wellbeing and how it can be improved. Mental ill health already costs employers £2.4bn per year, and that’s without taking into account the impact of the pandemic on our mental health.
The Covid-19 pandemic has created social, economic and health uncertainties and insecurities and exacerbated inequalities for many.
No one-size-fits-all approach
There is not a one-size-fits-all approach. For some, the changes brought about by the pandemic have led to positive lifestyle changes, with less time commuting and more free time to spend with family or doing leisure activities. Yet for others, where their home is not safe or conducive to productivity, working from home has had a detrimental impact on their mental and physical wellbeing.
Depending on whether all your staff are returning to the office full time or your company is offering hybrid or flexible working, there are a number of things you can put in place to ensure everyone feels safe and supported through this transition.
At Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, we’ve put together a checklist to help ensure mental health and wellbeing is front of mind as we countdown to the workplace return.
Your five-point wellbeing checklist
1) Check in throughout the transition. Regular wellbeing catch-ups with employees are key to supporting people’s mental health as we navigate this stage.
Just as with physical health, prevention is better than cure when it comes to mental health and wellbeing. As an occupational health expert, you should encourage managers to check in regularly on their teams, whether they’re in the office or working at home. All employees will benefit from these check-ins.
Creating a culture that encourages these conversations will help you understand how people are feeling and address any concerns.
As an occupational health expert, you should encourage managers to check in regularly on their teams, whether they’re in the office or working at home.”
We know some people find approaching these conversations challenging, but they don’t have to be. The MHFA England My Whole Self MOT is a simple, free tool to help people check in on their own and others’ mental health and wellbeing.
During one-to-one sessions with reportees or referrals, the questions outlined can be used to help start a conversation about mental health and wellbeing. This will be especially important over the coming weeks and months as people adjust to the new world of work.
We suggest sharing this tool throughout the organisation and encouraging line managers to use it as a guide to start conversations with colleagues. Creating a safe space for staff to speak openly about wellbeing will encourage people to ask for support if they are experiencing issues such as poor mental health or struggling to manage their work-life balance.
2) Review your working practices regularly. Many workplaces will be reopening and welcoming larger numbers of staff back on site after 19 July. The response to restrictions easing will be mixed and some colleagues will feel more nervous than others. To support everyone’s transition back to ‘the new normal’ you should regularly review your working practices and policies.
While some people will be keen to get back into the office, others will want to retain flexibility. By reviewing working practices and gathering feedback regularly, you can ensure everyone feels comfortable and supported. This is important not just for employees who want flexibility and for the business, as new talent will likely be looking for employers who can offer options to suit them.
If the organisation has developed a new flexible working policy, we recommend reviewing this at regular intervals to get feedback. What individuals and the business wants and needs may continue to shift over the coming months and years.
If we listen to our employees whilst considering business needs, we have the opportunity to improve workplace culture so it is good for people and good for business.
3) Create the opportunity for human connections. As we establish this new world of work, we must create opportunities for human connections. Socialising is good for our wellbeing and it can help employees see the bigger picture, stay connected, and boost morale.
We may all be tiring of Zoom quizzes but social activities can keep people connected whether they are in the office or at home. Enlist a team of people throughout the business to plan some new social ideas that work for the workforce wherever they are!
The options are endless but your people will have the best ideas for what people want and need. It could be a Friday ‘dance hour’, or a new activity such as a Desert Island Favourites team competition. These types of activities can be adapted and remain inclusive so no one feels isolated.
4) Improve mental health awareness and understanding. Better mental health awareness and skills across the workplace helps people talk freely about mental health and seek support we need it. This will always be important, pandemic or not.
Better mental health awareness and skills across the workplace helps people talk freely about mental health and seek support we need it.”
Research by NHS Digital found that one in six working-age adults have symptoms associated with mental ill health at any given time. This has worsened since the pandemic, with the Centre for Mental Health predicting that up to 10 million people will need either new or additional mental health support as a direct consequence of the crisis.
To help improve awareness and destigmatise mental health in the workplace, we recommend mental health training for all or some of the workforce.
We, for example, offer a wide variety of training courses from fully trained mental health aiders through to mental health awareness and champion courses. There are also courses available specifically for senior leaders such as online race equity and mental health courses, all of which are grounded in research and rigorously tested.
Organisations we work with have seen increases of up to 75% in referrals for common mental health issues to their occupational health services, meaning that staff are accessing professional support when they need it.
We have already trained one in 56 adults in mental health skills in England. This training is vital in helping to create mentally healthy workplaces for all.
5) Create an inclusive and equitable approach. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for mental health and wellbeing.
Organisations will need to adapt their strategy so it is reflective of the nature of their workforce and business. Your approach to managing the transition back to work will need to be weaved into a wider mental health and wellbeing strategy and regularly reviewed to ensure it is effective.
For example, mental health first aid training will not have the desired effect unless it is supported by a wider culture of wellbeing support.
Organisations leading the way on this – big and small – take a ‘whole organisation’ approach. This is about building the right culture and ensuring a mental health and wellbeing strategy is properly implemented.
Bringing together diversity and inclusion with health and wellbeing will drive a positive transformation in workplace mental health and performance.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequalities for many. Ensuring everyone feels safe, confident and able to speak up and contribute in the workplace will better support peoples’ mental health. It will also help businesses to thrive post-pandemic.
- MHFA England has advice on how to create an inclusive workplace culture and support employees with their mental health and wellbeing.