January blues? How to help employees speak up

"It's so important not to make assumptions," says Elaine Carnegie from Beingworks
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Blue Monday might be a myth, but that doesn’t mean employees’ mental wellbeing should go off the radar, particularly with the pandemic challenges organisations continue to face.

It’s well known that Blue Monday – which traditionally occurs the third week of January – is a myth dreamed up by advertisers. The thinking is that the combination of dark weather, post-Christmas debt and the fact that new year’s resolutions are beginning to wane will push people to spend money to cheer themselves up.

This year, of course, those factors have been intensified by the pandemic. As we enter the 11th month of the Covid-19 crisis, January 2021 means not just bad weather and falling off the wagon, but many employees are living under tight coronavirus restrictions, juggling deadlines with homeschooling, and facing down the barrel of a deep recession.

Katherine Moxham, a spokesperson for risk sector industry body GRiD, says that while “national awareness days” often appear to make light of a serious issue, they do in practice provide an opportunity to increase knowledge and understanding.

“The third Monday in January may or may not be any more difficult than any other day. But Blue Monday does provide employers with an opportunity to remind their staff about support that’s available,” she explains.

“It’s also a chance for employees to talk about any struggles they have and to feel comfortable in doing so. In addition, hearing about the challenges of others is valuable in helping people feel less alone.”

Wellbeing communication

Throughout the events of 2020, many employers stepped up their game in terms of promoting wellbeing and communication. “Employers pushed their employee assistance programmes and talked about mental health more than ever,” says Eugene Farrell, chair of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association and mental health lead at AXA PPP Healthcare.

“In the public sector and health services we saw huge increases in utilisation, with an immediate increase in calls and services, while in other sectors it went off a cliff as the pandemic was so overwhelming people felt it overshadowed smaller things they might use these services for.”

While it may be tempting to assume that employees are used to dealing with the challenges of working from home and know the resources available to them if they’re struggling, this latest period of lockdown has made it more necessary than ever to check in.

Tuning in

Natalie Rogers, HR director at Unum UK, says: “Following the government’s latest announcement, UK workforces are again adapting to this new lockdown period across the country. Now more than ever it’s vital that employers are tuned in to how their employees are coping.”

Some staff may be feeling mentally vulnerable so it’s crucial to listen to individual feedback as well as signposting support, she adds: “Taking the time to listen to individual feedback about ways of working day-to-day will not only ensure your team stays productive, but they stay positive too.”

And while the pandemic has deepened awareness around mental health issues, there will still be staff who feel uncomfortable discussing their concerns.

“There are a number of reasons why employees may feel that they can’t ask for help,” explains Elaine Carnegie, founder and managing director of training and wellbeing consultancy Beingworks. “We have made a lot of progress around mental health awareness but unfortunately, stigma and discrimination still exists.”

Carnegie cites a number of reasons why this might be the case: “Fearing others’ responses can prevent people speaking about their mental health and seeking help and support.

“Some employees can fear that disclosing mental health issues will have a negative impact on their career. It can be difficult to recognise early warning signs of deteriorating mental health in ourselves and therefore this will prevent someone seeking help if they are struggling,” she says.

Reach out to everyone

Cues that we’d normally pick up in an office can go missed, so managers have a bigger responsibility to reach out to everyone rather than waiting for them to approach with a problem. Farrell adds: “So many people are remote right now, so we have to make a concerted effort to reach out and check in with everybody. On one level it’s an organisational response, but also not a tick-box exercise. It should be something you actively do so it happens with everyone.”

Finding this balance can be a challenge, however. “It’s not about interrogating, it’s about making sure people are OK and responding if they say no. Ask a few more questions than usual, but also make time for the casual,” he says.

As well as ensuring managers take time to talk to individuals, making time for employees to talk to each other builds peer support in a remote setting, Farrell adds.

“Lots of employers are working people longer or may be accommodating commitments such as home school, but they should still allow time for a chat as you would in the office. When people are sharing experiences, that’s when an issue might pop up.”

“It’s not about interrogating, it’s about making sure people are OK and responding if they say no” – Eugene Farrell, AXA PPP

Workplace champions

Making employees aware of mental health champions or other resource groups in the workplace can help. “This could be a champion with training around mental health or a particular issue such as sexuality. You need to ensure employees know there’s someone they can talk to who’s not their friend or manager.”

It’s worthwhile remembering that stresses do not only stem from mental health concerns, too. According to research by Tilney, an investment company, while almost a third of adults (29%) improved their mental and physical health last year by spending more time with their families, only 10% thought about their longer-term financial wellbeing. Employers could step up their support in this area, says Zoe Bailey, chartered financial planner and director at Tilney.

“Considering how long the road to full economic recovery in the UK could be and how badly people’s employment opportunities have been affected, more needs to be done to encourage people to spend time educating themselves on their personal finances, what policies are out there to help them, to take real action and start planning for their future now,” she advises.

Use digital channels

One way to reach out to employees who may be reluctant to share their worries is to offer digital channels where this is possible. Collaboration platform Workplace from Facebook has just launched a feature called Safety Centre, for example, which helps employees “check-in” to tell HR or managers they are safe.

This enables an organisation to share messages about events that could impact employee safety, such as new lockdown regulations that affect whether they come into the office or even a natural disaster (Delta Airlines uses Safety Check during hurricane season, for example).

At the same time HR can monitor the platform to see how employees interact with each other about the issue. A dashboard shows read and response rates of messages, they can tailor messages to certain audiences or cadences, and employees can see the latest updates in their “feed”. There is also the option for employees to swap or cover shifts if another worker is unable to work.

This sort of mechanism can work especially well with front-line workers, explains Ujjwal Singh, head of product at Workplace from Facebook.

“Nowhere is this more important than on the frontline, where some of the most at risk are working in shops, ambulances and factories – often without company laptops or email access,” he says.

“As well as ensuring staff can mark themselves as safe, like on Facebook consumer Safety Check, Safety Center helps HR to proactively push safety updates and changes in regulation to ensure staff are protected and informed while on the job.”

Authentic culture

Check-in tools aside, conversations around mental health need to become more frequent and normalised if all employees are to feel comfortable sharing how they feel, adds Carnegie from Beingworks.

“Organisations need to create inclusive workplace cultures where people can be themselves and speak up about their mental health without fear of judgement,” she says. “People need to access the help and support they need without any barriers, so that authentic and genuine human connection is vital.

“Regular temperature checks or anonymous surveys will help employers gauge how well employees feel that they are being supported. Leaders and line managers need to identify what their people need now and allow them to open up so they can be signposted to the right help and support, whether that be professional or other support services. It’s so important not to make any assumptions.”

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