Mental health has come to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic, with worries relating to health, finances, social isolation, job uncertainty and home schooling among the main potential causes.
Experts have gone as far as to suggest that the mental health crisis is a pandemic of its own – in June, mental health charity Mind called it “The mental health emergency”, commenting that the pandemic “will leave a deep and lasting scar on the mental health of millions in this country.”1
And recent statistics for UK workers support this. New research by leading recruiter Wade Macdonald and workplace law specialist Doyle Clayton involving 150 HR leaders has found that three in five UK workers have experienced mental health issues since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.2
Not a priority?
Moreover, a survey in September by mental health organisation TalkOut found that 35% of the 1,500 UK workers polled said their mental health was worse than before the virus arrived in the UK. Despite this, 56% said they hadn’t received any mental health advice or support from their employer since the pandemic hit and, importantly, 85% said they believed their mental well-being had not been among their employer’s priorities during the pandemic.3
Jill Mead, CEO of TalkOut, said businesses still had a “long way to go” to provide effective mental health support for employees, despite the issue being on their agenda for some time.
“Unfortunately, whilst businesses were quick to adapt to social distancing and working from home, for many, the emotional well-being of employees was an afterthought. But the psychological strain of the crisis is impossible to ignore and whether staff have been working on the frontline, furloughed or working from home, it’s likely to have a long-term impact.”
It’s clear that a number of worries experienced during the pandemic are job-specific – including worries over job security, salary cuts, furlough, the isolation of remote-working, and juggling working from home alongside home-schooling or childcare. For smaller businesses that have successfully weathered the storm, there’s a sense of not letting productivity slip and employees could therefore feel under pressure and could even ‘burn out’ as a result.
Reading the signs
In March 2020, a lot of businesses were thrown into the world of enforced homeworking, with the challenge of an entire workforce suddenly working remotely. The advice changed for a brief period in August, but in general the advice has been to work from home where possible. If your employees have been working at home for months, the isolation and new ways of working could be having a worrying effect on their mental health.
Although it can be more difficult to spot the signs that someone is struggling when they are working from home, there are things you can look out for. Julie Brophy, a business psychologist and Principal Consultant at Cambridge-based business management consultancy OE Cam, recently spoke to St. James’s Place about the red flags that can alert you to a remote employee who is struggling mentally.
She says that when participating in calls or video calls with your employees, you should look out for a change in the use of language, tone of voice and manner. Does anyone seem quieter and more subdued and are they using fewer positive adjectives than you would expect? Are they making less of a contribution in discussions than you would expect? Essentially: how are they compared to how they would normally be?
Bear in mind that they may not be responding in the same way in a video conference because that’s not the way they are used to holding meetings – and it’s harder to read body language on a video call than in person. The non-verbal cues are harder to pick up on, but you need to look out for things like whether they are sitting back more or coming forward into conversations.
Another indicator is a decline in the quality or speed of their work. Again, this must be balanced with whether they are simply extremely busy. Julie notes that there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that people are going from video conference to video conference and so their days are absolutely packed. Also keep in mind that the employee in question could be taking on extra work because some of their colleagues have been made redundant or furloughed.
Leading by example
It’s up to business owners and line managers to look out for these warning signs. Julie explains:
“If you are seeing that someone isn’t contributing as much in a meeting, that’s the kind of discussion to take offline. Reach out to them one-to-one and just ask how they are doing. It shouldn’t be a performance-related conversation, just ask them how they are doing and how things are at home.”
Julie also says that at some businesses the structures that were put in place at the start of lockdown to support social cohesion and enable regular informal contact with employees have fallen away over time. Owners need to reassert these and put in place reminders for individuals to be contacted to see how they are.
Being a leader isn’t just about ‘people-managing’ – it’s about empowering and, importantly, reassuring your team. Despite any changes to the business and working practices, there’s likely to be a lot that has stayed the same – be sure to highlight these points to your team.
And don’t forget to practise what you preach when it comes to good mental health practices. Julie comments that leaders should be role models when it comes to behaviours in a remote environment:
“Perhaps at the end of a call you should say, yourself, ‘I’m just going to take half an hour and go out for a walk because I’ve been on calls all day and I just need to clear my head’. You should model that kind of behaviour.”
Starting the conversation
To conclude, then, it’s clear that one of the most important aspects of mental health is opening the conversation about it.
Many experts are in agreement that one (rare) silver lining of the pandemic is the idea of ‘shared experience’ – whether it’s anxiety, isolation or health concerns, many of us are currently facing similar challenges to our mental well-being, and we’re therefore talking about it more openly. Again, we use TalkSpace as an example. In a recent article they ask: ‘Could COVID-19 Be the Thing That Actually Normalizes Mental Healthcare?’.4
Indeed, the pandemic could create a turning point for mental health, and this should filter into the workplace. Look beyond your employees’ performance and see how they are feeling and coping with the current situation. Some may be fearful of catching the virus or may have suffered a bereavement during the pandemic, while others may be struggling with social isolation. Those who have been furlough on reduced salaries may have financial worries, while some may have underlying health issues that make them vulnerable. Some might be struggling to juggle childcare, while those on furlough could be worrying about job security.
Understanding these issues can help employers put together a plan that is specific to the individual, making your team members feel reassured and – most importantly – valued. TalkOut’s Jill Mead hits the nail on the head:
“A positive and supportive workplace can make all the difference when it comes to mental health and, now more than ever, businesses have a duty of care to their workforce.”5
Employees are the most important asset a business can have, and their mental health is vital to their overall well-being – and unleashing their potential at work.
The opinions expressed by third parties are their own and not necessarily shared by St. James’s Place Wealth Management or Wellesley Wealth Advisory.