By Sam Dunn, is a business psychologist and Head of Corporate Wellbeing at The Soke.
Recent ONS figures which show that the number of people suffering from depression had doubled during the pandemic make for worrying reading.
Across most parts of the world, people have been faced with a huge range of challenges, from anxiety surrounding job security, being furloughed or made redundant to loneliness and isolation. At the same time, the always-on culture of working from home has led many to feel a sense of burnout and even disillusionment with their job. Research commissioned by Microsoft in August found that over 30 per cent of remote and firstline workers say that the pandemic has increased burnout at work.
There are however ways in which businesses can take action to support the mental health and wellbeing of their people at this time.
Critically, they must take a systemic approach. It is not enough for initiatives to be run out of a small Employee Health Department. Mental health and wellbeing must be central to an organisation’s strategic activity. Imagine saying that six months ago!
We have long known the link between wellbeing, happiness and performance, but until recently very few organisations paid anything other than lip service to this. Now we are at potential crisis point it is time to take action and treat wellbeing as an important, if not the most important, element of a successful and high performing organisation.
So what does a systemic approach mean? It means looking at all of the levers and activities in your organisation that can have a positive effect on mental health and wellbeing.
First things first – positive change needs to come from leaders and how they role model. Leaders must start by being both honest and vulnerable about their own mental health and making it clear that it is ok to talk about mental health in the workplace. I would argue that the ability of leaders to have conversations with their people about mental health and wellbeing is as important a leadership capability as any other. It is a skill that can be learnt and developed relatively easily. It should be part of leadership programmes and should be a prerequisite to taking on a leadership position. Ask yourself just how comfortable you are having these types of conversations? It is no longer enough to ask HR or Employee Health to have the conversations for you.
Also, invest time in your people. Every employee should have a one-to-one with their manager at least once a month focusing on how they are doing. If possible, get out and meet them in person, whilst observing social distancing rules. Be creative about where you meet; going for a walk in fresh air can help to boost the flow of conversation while providing a much-needed break from your screens.
If you do one thing and one thing only to promote positive wellbeing, invest in your teams right now. According to psychology author Shawn Achor in his book The Happiness Advantage, social connection and strong community is the single most important factor in the experience of joy, contentment and positive wellbeing. I have facilitated many sessions with teams in the last six months focused on wellbeing and the experience is often transformative. Simply creating a safe space to talk about how people are doing, how they can support each other and how they manage their work at this time has a remarkable effect on feelings of social connection and support.
Communication and engagement
Take every opportunity to talk and connect with your employees. Share, be honest and don’t hold back. Introduce regular town hall meetings and check-ins, perhaps running masterclasses on wellbeing topics such as sleep, mindfulness or family dynamics. You do not need to have all of the answers, but you do need to listen.
Be sure to engage with your employees at a strategic level. Setting up steering groups that involve all levels of employees to help shape and guide your organisational approach to wellbeing can be really useful. Hear what it’s really like on the ground. Get the visceral feelings and experience of people and let them help shape your policies and approaches. Listen and implement useful changes or ideas that are discussed. Participative psychology highlights that if someone is involved in a decision they are more likely to feel positive about it. By allowing your employees to make decisions they will be far more engaged in the business overall.
Ergonomics – the physical wellbeing timebomb is coming too
With millions of people still working from home, it is vital that businesses support their employees by investing properly in their home workstations. Don’t assume that people know how to work effectively from home and be mindful of differing circumstances amongst your team; for example the mother who is also having to look after young children kept away from school due to illness, or the younger employee working from a shared flat without sufficient space for a home office. It is paramount that the physical health of your employees doesn’t suffer because of bad seating or insufficient technology. Why not bring in physiotherapists to run virtual sessions to support with desk set-up?
Consider the information you may have at your fingertips and how this might help inform the decisions you make. Surveys can be a useful tool to understand broad themes and inform any interventions. I work a lot with data and identifying the hotspots in organisations. By collecting data proactively and confidentially, you will be able to adapt your ways of working and introduce or further promote support services for the benefit of the wider team. Then continually check they are working and change them if they aren’t.
External support – get expert help
You might find it beneficial to employ a wellbeing team or individual coach to help implement some of these recommendations. Coaches can help leaders think through and plan the best approach that they can take to support their employees. They might also help to introduce simple wellbeing practices like virtual mindfulness sessions, which should be run several times and day, everyday, so that employees have enough opportunity to use them.
Most organisations will have existing support lines and also offer counselling and therapy options. Get usage data on these, check they are working, promote them.
Most importantly, if you think someone is struggling, don’t ignore it. Don’t brush it off. It might be hard and uncomfortable but by simply asking them how they are doing you could be helping them in a positive way that you can’t even imagine…being kind and empathetic is a great start!