Many employees are on the brink of burnout, with up to 58% of key workers now meeting the criteria for clinically significant levels of various mental health illnesses, according to UCL data. Researchers found: “Frontline healthcare workers need a range of ‘flexible’, ‘easily accessible’ and ‘consistent’ psychological support to overcome the significant mental health burden resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The issues of flexibility and accessibility the report highlights are critical in encouraging staff to ask for help, and in countering the stigma and shame that so often stops staff from doing so.
Cultural stigma is evident among some key workers who feel that they have to live up to the ‘hero’ label given to them by the media and by so many of us – especially perhaps the emergency services and NHS workers we clapped for over lockdown. While it takes great inner strength to share vulnerability, for some it may be connected to a sense of having failed or displaying weakness when their job is to be strong for others.
According to Dr Hannah Wilson, consultancy clinical psychologist at Kooth, in addition to this deep stigma, there is the job itself, which may see members of staff working in high risk situations where they may be repeatedly exposed to trauma while taking on a huge emotional burden.
Dr Wilson: “By nature, key workers often need to empathise with the people they are helping. However, sometimes this can build up, and employees can often end up vicariously taking on a lot of emotions. Many frontline workers are emotionally exhausted and may cope by becoming disconnected and detached from their emotions.
“While this serves as a protective function, many are finding it hard to turn this coping mechanism off, becoming withdrawn and distant at both work and home. This then forms a difficult cycle: people are emotionally overwhelmed, so they disconnect to avoid burning out, but this disconnection and withdrawal can lead to further symptoms of burnout.”
How can HR teams support those silenced by stigma?
It’s clear that many of the challenges to key worker mental health are longstanding and culture driven. What’s also evident is that the pandemic has shone a light on the topic, offering an opportunity for employers to take wellbeing more seriously.
According to one A&E worker we spoke to, “There’s a distinct lack of understanding from the management team, offering ineffective and inconsiderate interventions such as an ‘ice lolly break’. I’m not sure the people choosing the employee support actually know what we even need.”
While most organisations are closer to knowing what their employees want, a great many are relying on traditional wellbeing tools, such as Employee Assistance Programmes or Mental Health First Aid training to solve mounting and complex issues. While these are invaluable parts of the picture, these approaches alone can often lack the flexibility, diversity, and proactive approach that key workers need.
Providing flexible ‘in pocket’ support
Kooth Work’s digital mental health platform is an example of how support and counselling can be made available discreetly.
Its BACP-accredited digital mental wellbeing service can complete the jigsaw of mental health support – by offering staff anonymous and timely access to professional, human support. There are no thresholds or waiting lists. Instead, there is a team of experienced practitioners, therapeutic resources and a large community – all supporting every individual when and how they need it.
To assess whether you have a ‘gap’ in the support offered to staff, Kooth Work advocates following a process of benchmarking, educating, supporting, and learning.
The first step is to understand what the key risks are within your organisation and to gain more insight into why your employees might be struggling with their wellbeing.
This data helps leaders understand what the risks are and how burnout is manifesting. You may choose to use a survey to assess wellbeing. If you are doing so, it’s worth choosing one which has been clinically approved.
The results from regular benchmarking can be used to educate leaders, managers, and employees about the top challenges within the workforce and where needs aren’t being met, building greater awareness for workplace wellbeing and burnout.
A crucial part of your wellbeing strategy needs to involve mental health support options. Your workforce data can help pinpoint what support could be helpful, and whether to look in-house or source externally.
Employers should be regularly checking in with their workforce, re-benchmarking to identify whether key risks are changing. Kooth Work helps employers through this learning process, providing regular data reports and offering clinical recommendations and advice for on course corrections.
Organisations that are willing to take these steps to offer a more holistic, personalised, and proactive wellbeing approach will reap the benefits of a more productive and engaged workforce.
They will be well on the way to beating burnout – or, better, preventing it from happening in the first place.
For more clinical insight on burnout and mental wellbeing support download the free Kooth Work Guide to Battling Burnout here.