As we look towards the summer and, hopefully, the gradual reopening of workplaces, managing employee mental health is going to need to be a priority. With their close-knit teams, small businesses may be well-placed to offer help, but should also recognise there is support out there they can access, writes Christine Husbands.
As lockdown measures slowly begin to ease (and hopefully for the final time), the question will begin to arise, as it did last summer, of how – and when – the many employees who have been performing their roles from home or been furloughed are now encouraged back into the workplace.
Although any return to offices and workplaces will undoubtedly be welcomed by some, many employees, even with the vaccine rollout and reduced community transmission we’re now seeing, may still have concerns and anxieties about this. When coupled with other stressors this can have a significant impact on their mental wellbeing.
While large businesses may have the benefit of an HR department and a range of support services, in reality – and perhaps counter-intuitively – small businesses may actually be better placed to support employees through this transition.
Management and colleagues who may have a closer relationship with their staff may be better able to spot a member of staff who is struggling with mental health issues than is sometimes possible in a larger, more anonymous, place of work.
Mental toll of the pandemic
Nevertheless, irrespective of size, employers will need to be aware, more than ever, of a potential decline in the mental health of their staff as we gradually come out the other side of the pandemic.
The past year and all that it has entailed has, not surprisingly, taken its toll on the mental wellbeing of many people. Anxieties have been wide-ranging, including worries about our own health, the health of our families, the impact of the restrictions, financial worries, depression brought about by isolation, grief for loss of freedom, the sheer impact on the world and, of course, those who have been bereaved.
Returning to the workplace
It also needs to be recognised that many employees will be genuinely torn: on the one hand they want to return to their places of work for reasons of job security, finances, social factors and loyalty. But, on the other, they may still have health concerns for themselves or those with whom they live, as well as being anxious about using public transport and practical issues such as childcare.
Employers therefore will have a great responsibility to manage this whole period effectively and sensitively, to ease staff back to work in a way that doesn’t exacerbate the condition of anyone struggling with mental health problems.
That may mean a one-size-fits-all approach simply won’t work. Again, smaller employees may well have an advantage here in that they will know their staff well and have a good gauge about how Covid-19 has affected individual people
Spotting and supporting mental ill health
Management in small businesses will therefore need to be mindful of the increased potential or even likelihood of mental ill health amongst their colleagues and teams.
Within this, it is important to remember that not everyone who is having difficulties is mentally unwell but, if unsupported, things can escalate.
While not a substitute for professional mental health support, here are seven practical ways that employers can be supporting employees at this time.
- Empathetic active listening. Take the time to speak to employees, ask open questions and most importantly listen non-judgementally and without interruption
- Ask what would help them. It may not always be possible to deliver on all needs, but it will help to understand their situation.
- Try to pick-up on verbal and non-verbal messages. It is important to be alert to signs that something may not be right.
- Be self-aware and appreciate the impact of employer communication on the employee. Do they seem comfortable with the conversation? Would they prefer a different method, for example would they prefer a phone call or an email?
- Summarise what has been said. Be supportive and non-judgemental.
- Signpost people to relevant sources of help. This can include charities such as Mind or The Samaritans, online toolkits, an EAP if you have one, mental health first aiders or, of course, your occupational health team or provider.
- Follow-up regularly and constantly reassess.
Communication of mental health support
Smaller businesses should, naturally, remember to make mental health communications a vital part of their return-to-work guidance for staff. There are a range of useful toolkits out there, including those from SOM (the Society of Occupational Medicine) and ALAMA (the Association of Local Authority Medical Advisors).
Getting help early is key to avoiding a condition escalating; and an individual becoming very unwell and unable to work is a situation that can be difficult for everyone.
As employees tentatively step back into the workplace, it is important to remind them about any mental health provision available and how to access it; this can help to ensure help is sought quickly, which means better outcomes for the individual and the employer.
Bear in mind, too, that many insurers make mental health support services available as a free value-add alongside group and individual insurances, such as critical illness, income protection and life insurance policies.
There may also be tools, resources and services may available through other organisations such as trade unions and affinity groups. But employers, especially smaller employers juggling a range of different priorities, may need to be mindful that there is a vast spectrum information and support out there, some of it of variable quality.
However, the important thing to recognise is that there is support out there. Insurers and occupational health providers alike can be great first ports of call in terms of advice and signposting.
Support can range from a one-off call to a helpline right through to long-term support from a dedicated mental health nurse (such as we provide through RedArc Nurses), including clinically assessed provision of structured therapy sessions.
There is a wealth of support available, and it is important that SMEs are aware of it, particularly now as, hopefully, the economy begins to open up again.
Not only is the support being developed and enhanced all the time, there has never been a greater need. Employees often look to their employer for support, and SMEs are in a perfect position to provide that – but shouldn’t at the same time feel they are on their own.