Creating a different kind of workplace

Woman with laptop and cat

Mental Health Awareness Week, which kicks off today, encourages employers to focus on ‘kindness’ at a time when workers throughout the world are beset by feelings of uncertainty. Elizabeth McManus investigates what they can do to alleviate employees’ issues and provide a more certain future for themselves.

Despite growing awareness and openness around mental health in the workplace, employees still face many challenges getting the help they need. As highlighted by the Leading in a Digital Age report, published by City & Guilds Group last year, there’s a worrying discrepancy in how psychological safety is perceived in the workplace.

Despite 94% of employees saying that they considered psychological safety to be important, just 10% of businesses were seen to treat it as a priority.

This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (18-24 May), centres around the theme of “kindness”, providing an opportunity for businesses to reflect on their approach to workplace wellbeing at a time when people’s lives are full of change and uncertainty – and millions of workers are now operating out of their own homes.

Those people that have made the switch to working remotely face myriad challenges. As well as dealing with uncertainties around the virus and its impact on their work and social life, some people may find themselves in less than ideal working environments, bringing even more anxiety and stress into people’s lives.

For instance, some may feel isolated from colleagues and friends, whereas others may find themselves in a distracting work environment, surrounded by family and pets. Others may just not have an appropriate or safe space to work from. There’s a real risk of workers experiencing extreme anxiety or burnout.

This puts at stake not only the health and safety of individuals, but productivity as many leaders attempt to successfully manage teams remotely for the first time, at a time of economic uncertainty. We know that a happy and safe team is a more engaged, productive team, but when it comes to supporting mental health of employees, a key barrier can be confusion and ambiguity over whose responsibility it is to provide that support.

Indeed, our research found that while 43% of senior management expect HR to deal with the psychological safety of employees at work, the majority of employees (56%) believe the responsibility lies with line managers and senior management.

Ultimately, by laying the foundations for a network of support and stepping up their duty of care, employers can empower employees to take charge of their own mental wellbeing at work.

So, what can employers do to support the mental wellbeing of their employees?

1. Put minds at ease
With people still facing so much uncertainty over when more normality might be restored, transparency can be a powerful way to alleviate stress, and engage employees. With increasing numbers on furlough or at risk of being laid off – and the furlough scheme extended until  autumn – employers that are able to provide clear and transparent communications will enable their staff to feel safe and informed. These organisations will be the ones who come through this with a stronger, engaged workforce, and a better reputation as an employer.

2. Provide certainty where possible
More generally employers must provide as much clarity as possible about what is known with regards to the business, when so many things are not. For example, what is the current state of the business? What kinds of activities and meetings will happen and how often? How and where can employees access the support they need? Any assurance employers can provide will significantly help to relieve anxieties.

3. Remove any ambiguity over mental health safeguarding
Businesses need to establish what mental health safeguarding measures are in place, and who is ultimately responsible in coordinating them. Once this is clear, they must communicate with employees to let them know what support is available to them and where it can be found. This will empower individuals to take responsibility for their own mental health, knowing they are supported and that there is no weakness in asking for help.

4. Help employees help themselves
As part of this support, employers can encourage employees to support themselves, and invest time and energy in their own wellbeing – whether that’s making time to relax, having regular breaks, creating new routines or establishing boundaries between work and personal time. And although many people might feel under increasing amounts of pressure at the moment, it’s more important than ever that employees understand what is expected of them and what “doing a good job” looks like, to ensure they don’t feel overstretched – employers can encourage their staff to open up lines of communication and ask the right questions.

5. Keep talking
Communication is the most powerful tool in building engagement and trust, and during uncertain times, it is even more significant in helping employees feel valued. Making opportunities for virtual social meetings as well as regular check-ins with colleagues will help employees stay connected. However, when it comes to mental health, there is not a one-size-fits-all strategy. Communicating with employees to find out what they need to support their own wellbeing will go a long way in maintaining a happy and healthy workforce.

6. Deepen skills through investing time in learning
Offering learning and training opportunities can be a great way to keep employees engaged and feeling positive. Professional development can help people feel more prepared to return to work once normal business resumes. Not only do employers have a duty of care to protect the wellbeing of their employees, but it’s also necessary to recognise the positive role that psychological safeguarding has on the business, especially during times of economic instability. Indeed, businesses should come to consider kindness as an investment in the future.

Creating a new set of best practices for safeguarding mental health in the workplace and removing ambiguity – over available support, responsibility and the future of the business more generally – will be extremely important in this new reality.

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Elizabeth McManus

About Elizabeth McManus

Elizabeth McManus is head of leading transformation & engagement and principal consultant at the Oxford Group – a City & Guilds Group business
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