Because of closer relationships with their employees, small firms are in an ideal position to spot if and when somebody is struggling with their mental health. Christine Husbands looks at how this should be approached as staff return to the workplace.
As lockdown measures begin to ease, despite the reintroduction of restrictions in some areas in England and Wales, many employees are now being encouraged back into the workplace after months of working from home or furlough.
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Although this return to ‘normal’ is welcomed by some, many employees will have concerns about this. When coupled with other stressors, this can have a significant impact on their mental wellbeing.
Whilst large businesses may have the benefit of an HR department and a range of support services, in reality small businesses may be better placed to support employees through this time. Management and colleagues in smaller firms may have a closer relationship with their staff than is sometimes possible in a larger, more anonymous, place of work, which means they could be more able to spot when someone is struggling.
The pandemic and all it has entailed thus far has, unsurprisingly, taken its toll on the mental wellbeing of many people. Employees’ anxieties have been wide-ranging, including worries about their own health, the health of their 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, there are many who have been bereaved.
Employees are really torn: on the one hand they want to return to the workplace for reasons of job security, finances, social factors and loyalty, but on the other they may have health concerns for their health or the health of those with whom they live, as well as being anxious about using public transport and practical issues such as childcare.
Employers have a great responsibility to ease staff back to work in a way that doesn’t exacerbate any feelings of anxiety. A one-size-fits-all approach simply won’t work, and smaller employers are likely to have a good idea about how Covid-19 has affected individuals.
A one-size-fits-all approach simply won’t work, and smaller employers are likely to have a good idea about how Covid-19 has affected individuals.”
It’s important to remember that not everyone who is having difficulties is mentally unwell, but if unsupported, things could escalate.
Whilst not a substitute for professional mental health support, some suggestions for supporting employees include:
- Empathetic active listening: take the time to speak to employees, ask open questions and most importantly listen non-judgmentally and without interruption
- Ask what would help them: it may not always be possible to deliver on all needs but it could help to understand their situation
- Pick-up on verbal and non-verbal messages and 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, or 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-judgmental
- Signpost to relevant sources of help, including charities such as Mind or The Samaritans, or employee benefits that are available
- Follow-up regularly.
Smaller businesses should remember to make mental health communications a vital part of their return-to-work strategy. 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 they return to the workplace, it’s important to remind employees about any mental health provision available, as this can help ensure help is sought quickly. This will mean better outcomes for the individual and the employer.
Many insurers make mental health support services available as a free value-add alongside group and individual insurance options such as critical illness, income protection and life insurance. Services are also available through other organisations such as trade unions and affinity groups.
However, employers should be mindful that there is a vast spectrum of quality: support can range from a one-off call to a helpline, right through to long-term support from a dedicated mental health nurse including clinically assessed provision of structured therapy sessions.
There is a wealth of support available, and it’s important that SMEs are aware of it, particularly now. Not only is 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 access to it.