Wellbeing & Benefits

By Nick Gold, MD, Speakers Corner

In the two years since the COVID-19 pandemic began, business leaders have discovered a lot. We’ve learnt lessons in leadership, change, and competition. But one of the biggest learning curves has been how to manage mental health at work.

Isolation, loneliness, health concerns and uncertainty compounded to create a mental health crisis around the world. In fact, a study by mental health charity Mind revealed that more people experienced a mental health crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic than had ever been previously recorded. Businesses everywhere have stepped up and put measures in place to support people through this difficult time.

As we move beyond the pandemic, we’re entering the unknown. The real ramifications of the past two years are still emerging. So have businesses done enough to support people through the pandemic — and what more can we do to bolster employee wellbeing and mental health?

Supporting teams through the collective pandemic experience

Most businesses have been very sensitive to staff mental health over the last 2 years. As well as increasing employee wellbeing budgets and offering mental health days, they’ve actively tried to educate people about how they can better look after themselves. The majority of leaders and managers have been open and understanding about the challenges facing people collectively. This was driven by the fact that everyone was affected — from junior employees to CEOs.

Now businesses face a different challenge. As the consequences of the pandemic are revealed, businesses need to shift their focus from the collective experience to addressing the needs of individual employees.

The shift to individual mental health support

One of the biggest challenges for businesses to overcome is the concept of precedent: the idea that a solution for one person means it must apply to everyone. Precedent shouldn’t exist in business — how you deal with one person should differ to how you deal with another. As leaders, you should be sensitive to everyone’s lived experience.

The conversation needs to move away from catch-alls and global policies. Take compassionate leave as an example. Someone who loses a pet may be just as impacted by their bereavement as someone who loses a grandparent — so catch-all policies are unhelpful here. Instead, business leaders should empower line managers to know and understand their staff, so they can support them through any difficult time. It’s all about trusting your staff enough to come back and do their job brilliantly when they’re able to.

Why headline-grabbing HR policies don’t work

Many big businesses around the world have begun to advertise generous HR policies to support employee wellbeing. Monzo, for example, recently announced that its staff will be entitled to 3 months’ paid leave every year.

But headline-grabbing catch-all policies like these aren’t necessarily the best way to promote good mental health as we move beyond the pandemic.

A few years ago, we offered unlimited annual leave to the team at Speakers Corner. The team discussed it, but eventually turned it down on the grounds they would feel guilty about actually taking that much time off, especially if there was a lot of work to be done. Similarly, the often-lauded 4-day working week isn’t popular with all employees. In fact, expecting productivity to increase with fewer hours available can actually increase your staff’s stress levels.

Ultimately, managing mental health at work is about trust. Leaders need to tell their employees that they trust them to take time off when they need it, and to work hard when they’re feeling well. It’s too easy to use catch-all policies — what we really need are sensitive leaders who understand and trust their staff.

The continuing stigma around mental health at work

As a result of the good work done by businesses since the pandemic, there’s now much less stigma around the general concept of mental health. However, there is a lingering fear about what it really means for businesses, and how they can manage that.

Again, this comes back to trust. How can leaders trust that people won’t use their mental health as an excuse not to deliver? And how can employees be certain that their manager genuinely values and cares about their wellbeing? The only way is for staff, managers and business leaders to develop and cultivate relationships that breed trust.

How to support staff through a mental health crisis

The key to helping individuals deal with a mental health crisis is to ask questions.

Managers shouldn’t be scared to check in with their staff and ask how they are. By giving your team members the opportunity to share their problems, you can offer them the support they need to get through them. Checking in with your team routinely can make you aware of someone’s situation well before it begins to affect their work. This helps you prepare at work, and it gives your team members confidence that you take their wellbeing seriously.

Of course, you can only go so far. Some people will choose not to share their situations with you — and you can’t assume people will begin to open up just because you asked. But you hope they will, and, over time, they might. After all, everyone needs someone to be there for them. It just needs to be the right time and the right circumstances.

As leaders and managers with business objectives to achieve, it can be difficult to relinquish control like this. But we should all aspire to trust our staff to know what’s best for them. When they’re suffering a mental health crisis, they won’t be fully focused at work. So let’s give them the time and space they need to recover, so they can soon get back to delivering at peak performance.

Supporting mental health in 2022 and beyond

Businesses deserve a huge pat on the back for how far they’ve come to encourage employee wellbeing since the start of the pandemic. But the truth is that there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Now is the time to double down on mental health support. As life gets busier and people return to the office, we can’t waste this opportunity to create safe, supportive workplaces for our teams. By treating them as individual people with individual life experiences, we can give our staff the support they need to perform at their best.

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