World Mental Health Day falls every year on 10th October. This year, the day feels more poignant and truly global than ever before, with the COVID-19 pandemic affecting every corner of the world. Every country, community and family have been hit differently and endured different restrictions, but with some estimates saying 95% of the global population has been affected by the pandemic in some way,1 we think it’s fair to call this a unifying experience.
For months now, the majority of us will have been working remotely, although as furlough and job support schemes around the world end or change, there are constantly new people that are just starting their working from home experience. As the ‘The New Normal’ evolves into simply being ‘The Normal’, it’s an opportunity for leaders to shift from reactionary thinking to creating long term, sustainable systems which benefit their entire organisation.
As experts warn that we’re on the edge of a mental health crisis, with isolation and economic uncertainty as leading factors that contribute to increased feelings of anxiety,2 we’ve got advice for leaders and managers to support their employees’ mental well-being and build their resilience in these difficult times.
The importance of employee mental well-being
A multi-national survey conducted back in March 2020, under the backdrop of the start of many national lockdowns, looked into how resilient workers felt. It found that an organisation’s pre-existing health and well-being initiatives made a huge difference. In organisations where there were no initiatives, just 15% of employees reported feeling resilient, but in organisations with broad initiatives, 45% of employees did. In turn, resilient employees also reported having more energy, confidence, enthusiasm and job satisfaction.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that, while just 57% of workers believe their employers offer health or mental well-being initiatives, in reality 87% of employers say they do run at least some programmes for their staff. It’s absolutely imperative that employers understand the importance of clear communication when marketing what they have on offer.3
Another study found that, as of September, 56% of workers in the UK had received no mental health advice or support from their employer since the start of the pandemic. This is worrying as 35% say their mental health has worsened during the pandemic.4
More than ever, employers and managers need to recognise the role they have over their employees’ mental well-being. Through learning and development, they can help their people become more resilient, but they also have the power to make work more stressful. Work is becoming more strenuous and anxiety inducing for many, and unless everyone involved can recognise this, then the problem is only going to get worse.
There’s no place like home?
For some, working from home will have been a dream come true. You can wear comfortable clothes and never have to worry about the traffic on your morning commute. However, for others, suddenly working from home will have been a nightmare.
In normal times, before making a long-term shift to working from home, we would all have ensured we had a proper set up for it – for example, a strong enough Wi-Fi connection, a good desk and comfortable chair in a quiet spot, and maybe some of us would have bought a better laptop. In reality, we had no warning and had to make do with what we already had. Of course, since the start of the pandemic, some people will have improved their home setup, turning a spare bedroom into an office, or upgrading their technology. But not everyone has the space or resources for that. Furthermore, in an ideal working from home scenario, we wouldn’t also be home schooling children and be unable to pop into the office for a face-to-face meeting even if we wanted to.
It’s important that we all remember the difference between choosing to work from home and being forced to work from home whilst dealing with the other side effects of living through a global pandemic. Managers and leaders may need to be more lenient and understanding when it comes to workloads and outputs during the lockdown. What was realistic for people in their office environment may not be as achievable now while they’re working from home. As long as your employees show that they aren’t deliberately slacking off, it’s unfair to penalise them or judge them too harshly if their home life isn’t conducive to their work. This will only exacerbate an already difficult situation; a little empathy goes a long way.
Make sure they take a break
One easy way to improve your employees’ mental well-being is to encourage them to take time away from work. Reports show that up to 28% of UK workers have cancelled their holiday in 2020, with April and May having the highest cancellations.5 These months line up with the strictest lockdown measures, suggesting people didn’t want to take time off if they couldn’t go anywhere.
Both employers and employees need to remember that annual leave isn’t just an opportunity for a holiday abroad. Even during a lockdown, it’s a chance to have a few days off. A chance to sit on the couch watching movies or going out for walks and day trips. It’s a chance to spend time with friends and family. It’s a chance to take time away from the stresses of work and reconnect to life away from the job.
Beyond annual leave, it’s vital to let yourself and others stop working at the end of the day and to set and respect boundaries. Particularly in this era of working from home, make sure your employees are able to switch off at the end of the day and don't feel like they're living in a 24 hour office. Surveys have found that workers will spend upwards of 8 hours a week responding to work emails outside of work hours, making it harder than ever to keep a work-life balance.6 Try not discourage this. Set a good example for others to follow.
Moreover – and this is certainly not the first time we’ve given this advice – don’t fall into the trap of believing that just because an employee is at their desk, or logged on to the virtual network, that they’re being more productive than someone who switched off at the usual time. The fallacy of presenteeism has led to many workers putting in extra hours so they appear to be working harder while away from the office. This is creating increased anxiety, stress and burnout for many people who want to prove that they’re working successfully while at home.7
Embrace clear communication
According to the NHS, financial worries and job insecurity are among the biggest stresses for people during lockdown.8 In order to help their employees’ mental well-being, employers should have consistently clear and honest communication throughout the current crisis. If there’s bad news coming up, then tell your people as early as you can. This gives your employees time to react and make any necessary plans. It also stops rumours and misinformation spreading, keeping you in control of when and how people hear news and information. Equally, if there is good news to share with the team, then tell them this too. It will help them relax and raise spirits, which is also helpful for their mental well-being.
Communication with employees is also crucial for continuing to build relationships. In a physical office, even the quietest of people will be seen at their desk. You can say hello to people as you pass in the hall and you can overhear the latest gossip as people take a few minutes to chat next to the printer. With home working, none of this is so easy. Small talk is cut out of virtual meetings as ‘Zoom fatigue’ sets in, and you haven’t said a word to that quiet person since March.
Losing the social side of work will, for many, mean losing out on the ‘fun’ part of work. It’s the office environment and other people on the team that make or break so many jobs, and now that’s all on the verge of extinction, employees should actively encourage and facilitate some non-work interactions. From weekly virtual coffee breaks to allowing time on meetings and calls for a bit of idle chit-chat, these can all make the world of difference to people’s mental well-being while working from home, particularly those who may be suffering from loneliness.
While the world continues to be an uncertain and stressful place, it’s important for employers, managers and leaders to remember to do their part to help their people be more resilient and look after their mental health and well-being. You can’t stop the pandemic or any of the other health, environmental, political or social issues occurring these days, but you can be understanding, supportive and empathetic to people’s experiences.
For more help keeping your organisation on track while working remotely, take a look at our virtual workshops.
1 Manpower Group (2020) The future for workers, b y workers: making the next normal better for all
2 BBC (2020) Coronavirus: severe mental health problems rise amid pandemic
3 Aon (2020) The rising resilient
4 People Management (2020) Half of workers have received no COVID mental health support, poll finds
5 Wired (2020) You've not used up your holiday allowance and now it's too late
6 Business News Daily (2020) What after-hours emails really do to your employees
7 HR Review (2020) The UK's unspoken epidemic, 'Anxious Achievers'
8 NHS (2020) Mental wellbeing while staying at home