Supporting employees’ mental health as everything changes again

Clinical Nurse Consultant Heather Buckeridge looks at how employers can promote good mental health as more people return to the workplace.

Aviva’s life after lockdown guide is quick to make the point that lifting some of the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic won’t simply herald a ‘return to normal’. Employees may have trouble readjusting to a new way of working, and may miss the security provided by the bubble of lockdown. There’s never been a more important time for employers to focus on employees’ mental health.

It’s also important to point out that many of the mental health challenges which employees already faced before lockdown won’t have simply disappeared. Indeed, the experiences encountered by all of us over the last few months may have intensified existing issues. With many employers now re-evaluating working practices and approaches to employee wellbeing, we now have a fresh opportunity to look at ways to tackle old problems and new ones together.

Issues identified before the pandemic may have worsened

Aviva’s Health of the Workplace research carried out last year 1, found that no less than 92% of workers reported a mental health symptom, with 71% saying they suffered from stress and 65% having difficulty sleeping.  Worryingly, 41% said the most negative impact on mental health was work.

Employers’ views on the effectiveness of their approach to mental health didn’t always align with those of their employees. 77% of employers said they’re good at recognising when their colleagues are feeling under pressure. But only 37% of employees agree.

As employees return in greater numbers to the workplace – many of whom will be coming to terms with negative experiences during the lockdown period – it’s important to consider what’s behind this perception and try to address it. The report also uncovered findings which suggest matters may have got worse rather than better during the pandemic.

On the positive side, it showed that people are identifying favourable influences on their mental health. Just over a quarter said they had taken steps to identify and deal with the root cause of the problem – including getting to bed earlier (27%) and eating healthier food (26%).

But the most popular measure was ‘getting out more’ (29%) – a route which will have been closed to many over the last few months.

Practical guidance for employers looking to support mental health

Aviva’s life after lockdown guide details ways in which employers can provide support for their employees, as well as highlighting resources and organisations devoted to mental health. Key aspects of this guidance include:

  • Empowering line managers – line managers form a vital link in identifying any early indications that employees may need help to maintain positive health and wellbeing. The Health of the Workplace report found that employers were already seeking support to train managers on responding to mental health issues, and on successfully recognising warning signs that an employee may be struggling. Now this need must surely be greater than ever.
  • Appointing ‘mental health champions’ – some employees may feel better able to confide in members of staff at a similar level to themselves. We’d suggest recruiting people from all levels of the business to support line managers in this role.
  • Making employees aware of self-help options – one positive effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the increase in resources which can help employees to support their own mental health. The Life after lockdown guide includes links to charities and other organisations which provide these resources. You could consider bringing the most useful of these together in one place, where employees can easily access them. Many employers have a wellbeing ‘hub’ for this purpose.
  • Consider starting an employee assistance programme (EAP) – if you don’t already have an EAP in place, you could work with your HR representatives to help them design and implement tailored guidelines. Developing or providing access to confidential helplines should play a part here. There’s more information on this in Aviva’s guide.

‘But I won’t have the budget…’

It’s clear that there’s an urgent need for employers to make sure their employees’ mental health is well supported, as the ever-changing COVID-19 situation accentuates old challenges as well as creating new ones of its own.

Naturally, employers will be conscious that budgets are likely to be tight as we face the economic fall-out of the pandemic. Fortunately, many ways of supporting mental health are either relatively inexpensive or depend on resources which many organisations already have in place – including employees themselves.  In addition, the providers of workplace benefits packages are increasingly willing to provide access to added value benefits – including input on training and resources such as helpline access – at no additional cost.

By working together, all concerned parties can make far-reaching changes that go beyond addressing the particular mental health challenges of the moment.

Where to find more information and support:

Life after lockdown – Aviva’s guide covering a broad range of issues relating to the return to the workplace.

Heather qualified as a mental health and general nurse in the UK and a registered nurse in the USA in 1987. Alongside her nursing qualifications, she has a BSc in Health Promotion, a MA in Healthcare Law and Ethics, and a MSc in Mindfulness. She’s worked in the UK, South Africa, Canada and the USA, where she worked with large corporate customers promoting mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. She’s worked for Aviva Healthcare since 2000.

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