I recently spoke to the COO of a UK company employing over 1000 workers, whose entire SLT and HR team are on furlough. It has fallen to him to, not only implement the consultation process for 200 plus redundancies, including highly emotional one-to-one interviews, but to also address the fears and anxieties of workers about their return to work and future job security. This is on top of managing the logistics of reopening 17 sites to the public and grappling with the long term financial viability of the business. This story is not an unusual one as business leaders and managers around the country find themselves addressing increased mental health concerns in the workplace with little or no support.
The global pandemic is bringing an increased focus on mental health in the workplace as employees struggle to cope with the impact of COVID 19 on every aspect of their lives. Even before the onset of the coronavirus crisis, the first two decades of the 21st century saw a decline in mental health on an unprecedented scale. The last few months, however, have brought a worrying spike in the incidence of mental health conditions as we experience the greatest disruption to both domestic and professional life in living memory. Although data is patchy, we know that more than two-thirds of adults in the UK report feeling somewhat or very worried about the effect COVID-19 is having on their life. The most common issues are worry about the future, feeling generally stressed or anxious and financial pressures. The emergence of new stressors brought about by the pandemic was compounded earlier in the year by the effect of the national lockdown on normal coping mechanisms, such as socialising with family and friends, interacting with colleagues in the workplace or participating in leisure activities. In April, over 30% of adults reported levels of mental distress indicative that treatment may be needed – a 10% increase on the previous year. The introduction of new local lockdown restrictions coinciding with the onset of the shorter, colder days and the deteriorating economic situation is likely to have a further significant impact on mental wellbeing coming into the winter.
The Centre for Mental Health suggests as many as 10 million people in England alone could eventually need help with their mental health because of the pandemic. During normal times, the NHS is unable to cope with the demand for mental health services with 50% but the pandemic is likely to increase the gap between need and provision. The charity Mind found that almost a quarter of people who tried to access mental health services during a fortnight in April failed to get any help.
While many companies have improved their understanding of workplace wellbeing and taken steps to reduce work-related stress in recent years, the focus has now shifted to an increased responsibility for employees’ general mental health. The reduction in normal activities and interactions outside of work, places a greater emphasis upon the workplace as a community, bringing with it demands that many employers may find challenging.
Employees are increasingly looking to their employers to support their mental health concerns, as many have no-one else to turn to. Mental health issues are a major cause of long-term absence from work and it is, therefore, in the employer’s interests to provide support for employees. While HR teams in larger organisations are well set up for providing this level of support, however, in smaller workplaces, or those where support staff may be furloughed, employers can be overwhelmed by the demand for support of this nature, and may find their own health placed at risk.
It is crucial that employers protect their own wellbeing and build their resilience during this challenging time as the COVID crisis is far from over.
5 Strategies for Employers to Manage Stress and Build Personal Resilience
- Social support is the single most effective coping mechanism to manage stress and build resilience. It is a temptation, during hard times, to grind through the work and put social needs on the back burner. Instead you need to be deliberate in accessing social support and cultivating relationships by scheduling time for social contact, whether face-to-face or by Facetime/Zoom.
- Experience daily positive emotions to boost happy hormones and build resilience. Take 5 minutes at your desk to look at photos on your phone of family holidays or other good times and savour the happy memories.
- Engaging in prosocial behaviour by supporting someone else, outside of work, has huge benefits to wellbeing and resilience. Reach out to a vulnerable neighbour and find out what they need; offer to walk their dog or go to the supermarket for them. Even though you feel you have no time, this will make you feel better.
- Cognitively reframe highly stressful events or situations by gaining fresh perspective on them. Make sure that you discuss a situation with someone else before responding to high stress events as they will give you a fresh take on things.
- Stay connected to your values – if something feels ethically wrong then it probably is. Make sure you give voice to this and address it rather than ignoring your misgivings.
Dr. Helen Kelly
Helen began her professional life as a solicitor in the field of health and safety at work and for 10 years acted for clients who experienced accidents in the workplace or suffered from industrial diseases. Helen requalified to become a teacher in 1999 and was a school principal for 15 years, until she retired earlier this year. Helen completed a PhD in 2017 in the field of school leader stress and consults, present and writes on the subject of workplace wellbeing, with a special interest in schools. Helen is a yoga teacher trainer and a professional coach. She has a postgraduate certificate in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology.