COVER talks to Simon Blake, chief executive of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, about how employers can create positive mental health cultures as working models evolve as a result of the pandemic
One of the primary revelations that has come out of the Covid-19 pandemic in terms of mental health has been the shift to remote working.
As employees that have traditionally worked full-time in offices or other professional environments were suddenly forced to use their homes to carry out their jobs, it became quickly apparent that this created a whole new set of mental health issues.
With the UK nearing the latest tranche of lockdown restrictions lifting, many employees are preparing to return to their workplaces having grown accustomed to more flexible models over the past 12 months.
In 2021 we should not have to leave parts of our identity - be that our cultural or ethnic background, sexual or gender identity, or mental health - at the door when we get to work."
COVER talks to Simon Blake, chief executive of Mental health First Aid (MHFA) England about the remote revolution, and how this factors into an opportunity for employers to create a culture of care when it comes to mental health that benefits everyone.
There is clear demand from employees to maintain hybrid/flexible working models going forward, so what are the benefits of doing so for employers?
"As lockdown measures begin to ease, many employers will be exploring how remote, hybrid and flexible working can work for their organisation on an ongoing basis. For some employees, the new ways of working brought about by the pandemic led to positive lifestyle changes.
Some people found themselves spending less time commuting and spending more time with the family or doing leisure activities. Where people's mental health and wellbeing improved their productivity at work also benefited. Some employees are happy at home, whereas others will want to return to the office as soon as possible.
"The important thing is employers continue to trust in their people and give them the flexibility to decide what works best for them. Line managers should be aware of their responsibility to check in regularly with their people to make sure everyone is working in a safe and productive environment.
"Employers have an opportunity to benefit from the gains of boosted productivity of hybrid or flexible working but they must ensure that employees feel supported in this. Checking in regularly with everyone, not just those who are visible or in the office, ensures you keep connected with your people. When all employees feel comfortable and safe in their working set up, then everyone benefits. Productivity and retention rates will be high."
What are the primary barriers to organisations adopting good mental health as part of their culture?
"This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and people are discussing mental health more than ever. Although there has been brilliant work done over the past decade to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health in society, we still have a long way to go in implementing truly inclusive and non-judgemental workplace cultures.
"Employers should take action all year round, not just this week. Recent research from MHFA England found that one in four employees are uncomfortable discussing their mental health at work, and less than half (43%) of employees think their colleagues know the real them.
"It is clear there are still several barriers that exist, from lack of education and awareness to company culture. At any given time, 1 in 6 working-age adults have symptoms associated with mental ill health, so it's really important people feel able to reach out if they are in need of support. Organisations need senior role models who can lead from the top and share their personal experiences of poor mental health, empowering and encouraging others across the organisation to do the same.
"There may also be barriers in terms of time and investment. With businesses choosing to focus on post-pandemic recovery as a priority, employee wellbeing may slip down the list. But mental ill health is responsible for 72 million working days lost and costs £34.9 billion each year to the UK economy. The long-term cost is far greater than if employers fail to act to protect the wellbeing of their people. It's not just the right thing to do, it makes financial sense too."
What steps can organisations take to create this culture of care to support employee mental health?
"As Covid-19 restrictions ease and organisations consider their working practices, now is the time to evaluate what is working when it comes to employee wellbeing. Central to this should be creating a ‘culture of care' and inclusivity in the workplace. As we navigate this new world of work employers should focus on bringing people back together and making human connections.
"In 2021 we should not have to leave parts of our identity - be that our cultural or ethnic background, sexual or gender identity, or mental health - at the door when we get to work. Employers have key role to play in creating a workplace culture where everyone feels they can bring their whole self to work. This culture change starts at the top of every organisation with board members leading by example. By encouraging people to talk about their mental health, we can help remove the stigma around poor mental health so people are more likely to seek the support they need, when they need it.
"Employers need to ensure support is readily available with a strong mental health and wellbeing strategy in place all year round. Organisations should explore their options for creating this support system, such as access to Mental Health First Aiders and an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). Sometimes an employee's situation may be more serious, so information should be made available about where else to seek mental health support.
"Line managers should keep communication open with their team, as often and frequently as possible. Making the time to socialise with people from across the organisation can help people see the bigger picture, stay connected, and boost morale. You could arrange coffee mornings, a Friday ‘dance hour', or try a new activity such as a Desert Island Favourites team competition.
"Senior leaders should lead by example and role model healthy hybrid working habits and behaviours. For example, video calls have become the new norm but perhaps try having a regular phone call or a ‘walk and talk' meeting instead of being on camera all day, which can be tiring.
"HR teams should consider implementing a re-induction process for staff who are returning to the office to help them settle back in and ensure that their queries and concerns are answered. It will also be important to clearly communicate health and safety protocols, as some employees may feel worried about the risk of infection from Covid-19 as the vaccination programme continues to roll out."
Is there a danger that employers will fall back into traditional mindsets around mental health as Covid restrictions continue to lift?
"Employers have asked people to give a lot of themselves during a very difficult time, and most employees have responded with commitment and determination. If employers want to retain their best people and attract new talent, they will have to continue to evaluate and develop their mental health and wellbeing strategy.
"A strong mental health and wellbeing strategy doesn't just benefit the employees but the organisation as well. The highest performing workplaces are supportive and inclusive. When we put diversity and inclusion at the centre of mental health and wellbeing, we can create a workplace culture where everyone can be themselves. This helps us to feel more engaged, to think bolder, find common ground, and work more effectively together."
How can employees proactively promote good mental health within their organisations to the benefit of both their colleagues and the business?
"We can all do more to help normalise and promote good mental health. Regular wellbeing catch-ups with colleagues are an essential way to support people's mental health. The My Whole Self MOT is a simple, free tool to help employees check in on their own and others' mental health and wellbeing. Employers can share the MOT with teams, and line managers can use the questions outlined to help start a conversation about mental health during one-to-one sessions.
"Creating a safe space for staff to speak openly about wellbeing will help those in need to ask for support if they are experiencing issues such as poor mental health or struggling to manage their work-life balance. Wherever you are working from, feeling supported to choose to bring your whole self to work is better for wellbeing and better for business."
For further support and advice, visit MHFA England's website.
You can find all of COVER's editorial and resources for Mental Health Awareness Week here.