The expertise of occupational health will be critical to helping employers navigate the ‘second pandemic’ of mental ill health as we emerge from Covid-19, argues Simon Blake.
Over the past two years, the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted our working lives globally. While the short-term consequences were sudden and severe, with key workers thrown into new situations, millions of people furloughed or losing their jobs and others turning their homes into offices, the long-term impact on working practices are – and should be – still emerging.
One thing is for sure, more and more people are considering how they want to work, and in a recent MHFA England survey, employees view flexibility in working practices supremely important.
This uncertainty has led to what many have identified as a ‘second pandemic’ in relation to poor mental health and illness.
The Centre for Mental Health has predicted that 8.5 million adults and 1.5 million children in England will need support for depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorders in the coming months and years.
For occupational health experts supporting employers and their staff with the relationship between health and work, these are important times.
Mental ill health
The pandemic accelerated increased flexibility and, as we transition through to the next phase, we move from working from home to hybrid ways of working and continued flexibility in working hours.
Despite what many view as positive changes, the toll on individuals cannot be underestimated and we know that many people are feeling fatigued, unmotivated, disconnected from vision and purpose and lack of face-to-face connection has impacted on the quality of relationships and creative energy.
And work of course is not just what happens ‘in the office.’ Many people are moving less, connecting less and being outside less, all of which impacts on wellbeing. As we move through the next stages, occupational health experts will be considering what approaches are working, what changes are here to stay and how can we continue to improve working practices.
Flexible and hybrid working
The increase in hybrid and flexible working options have been beneficial adding greater choice to our working lives. Organisations are considering their models and how to support employees to find the right working patterns for them, their teams and the business as a whole.
There isn’t one right way and there are different views on ‘out-of-hours’ emails, remote and flexible working.
MHFA England research shows, despite major policy changes in European countries like France and Portugal, only one in 10 UK workers thinks a ban on out-of-hours emails would have a positive impact on their mental health and wellbeing (13%).
This shows a ‘one size fits all’ approach to workplace wellbeing simply won’t work. Occupational health experts will need to work with employers and actively listen to employees and help find positive ways forward.
Regular wellbeing catch-ups with colleagues are key to supporting people’s mental health as we navigate the next phase.
Occupational health experts can reiterate the importance of managers checking in on their teams, wherever they are working. Just as with physical health, early intervention, diagnosis, and support are vital ways to help people protect their mental health and prevent issues getting worse.
However, a recent survey from The Royal Society for Public Health found that over two-thirds of employees (67%) said they felt less connected to their colleagues during the pandemic.
We also found that nearly half (48%) of all respondents surveyed as part of our My Whole Self campaign had no wellbeing check-ins from their employer in the past year. By prioritising employee wellbeing and enshrining regular wellbeing catch ups into working practicecs, we are more likely to recognise the signs and symptoms of mental ill health and, if necessary, help sign post and support colleagues to help if needed.
I know some people find approaching these check in conversations challenging, but you do not have to be an expert. Take a look at the ‘My Whole Self’ MOT tool we have created to help people check in on their own and others’ mental health and wellbeing. We also published a new Talking tips toolkit to help people approach conversations about mental health.
Maintaining human connections
Through the pandemic many of us have learnt more about each other’s lives outside of work because we saw inside people’s homes. Continuing to foster these connections is important for wellbeing.
Occupational health practitioners should draw on their experience and insight from the workplace to help employers and employees work together to navigate their way in potentially unchartered territory.”
However, managers must support their teams to ‘switch off’ when not working. Simple steps such as going for a walk during the day or turning off email notifications from work when out of hours can help combat the ‘always on’ feeling.
At MHFA England we have ring-fenced certain hours during the working day where we encourage meeting free times; midday to 1pm every day and after 3pm on a Friday. It is vital to ensure that we can take a break from technology if needed.
Relationships have always been an important part of our working lives – new models of working must facilitate relationship building. Employers still need to create moments that bring people together.
Organising online social events, such as quizzes, a Friday ‘dance hour’, or a new activity such as a ‘Desert Island Favourites’ team competition, can foster human connection in a digital world.
This gives colleagues have the opportunity to interact with each other and counter any feelings of isolation. Social connections should remain a key priority for occupational health experts as they continue to support employers and their staff with the relationship between health and work.
Ongoing evaluation of policies
Organisations need a comprehensive approach to supporting mental health and wellbeing as we experiment with new ways of working.
Now is not the time to fix our ways of working for the long term, but instead we must find ways to continue to support employees through change. Open and honest conversations will be key to finding patterns that work and learning those that don’t work.
Occupational health practitioners should draw on their experience and insight from the workplace to help employers and employees work together to navigate their way in potentially unchartered territory.
The past two years have been a time of change but also opportunity and occupational health experts are in a unique position to positively impact employees experience in the workplace by developing policies that prioritise mental health and wellbeing.