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Mental health in the workplace: A renewed focus

Mental health in the workplace: A renewed focus

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Awareness surrounding mental health and its place in the office have become increasingly important throughout the last 18 months. A recent YouGov poll, commissioned by Acas, stated over a third of businesses thought employee mental health support had got better since the start of the pandemic. Francoise Woolley, Head of Mental Health and Wellbeing, at Acas, delves further into the results and highlights what exactly support managers need to provide their employees.

In a recent YouGov poll, commissioned by Acas, over a third of businesses reported that employee mental health support had improved since the start of the pandemic. While this is encouraging, half of employers reported that support had stayed the same, and for nearly one in 10 it was worse, indicating that there is still some way to go.

So why is the promotion of positive mental health in the workplace so important and why is it even more so at this time? Pre-pandemic figures indicated that work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 51% of all work-related ill health and 55% of all days lost due to work-related ill-health (HSE, 2020). In addition, it is estimated that poor mental health among employees’ costs UK employers £42 billion to £45 billion each year (Deloitte, 2020). As well as reducing sickness absence, supporting mental health and wellbeing in the workplace can reduce staff turnover, increase productivity as well as improve team collaboration and morale.

Move forward a year and a half, and the business case is even more plain to see as the ‘shadow pandemic’ of mental health is widely reported with incidents of depression more than doubling pre-pandemic to early 2021 (ONS).

The subjective impact

While the psychological impact of the pandemic is still unravelling, there is evidence that some groups have been more impacted than others. The pandemic has brought to the forefront many social and economic inequalities in society and disproportionately impacted those from ethnic minority groups. Those with pre-existing mental and physical health conditions have also been significantly affected. Young workers have seen a deterioration in mental health associated with the increase in unemployment and concern about job prospects. There has also been a more significant impact on some sectors where we have seen frontline workers, including those in health and social care, reaching burnout.

Many of the building blocks for good mental health have been unsteadied during the pandemic; notably ‘good work’ which includes, job security, safe and healthy workplaces and manageable workload demands. Along with continued uncertainty, this has led to a focus on people’s personal resilience as they navigate these stressors.

Organisational resilience has also been in focus with some organisations, particularly small to medium sized enterprises, having no option other than to operate in ‘survival mode’ for the last 18 months.

Acas helpline staff have listened to heart-breaking situations from both employees and employers. A significant increase in calls regarding redundancies to its helpline were taken in the height of the pandemic, with an inevitable impact on the health and wellbeing of business owners, those breaking the difficult news, the recipients and those left behind. While these calls reduced to pre-pandemic levels with the introduction of furlough, the ending of furlough will inevitably lead to more of these types of calls.

Significant changes to ways of working, with a sudden and dramatic shift to homeworking for many has caused employers and employees to rethink how people can work effectively and to re-evaluate the psychological contract – the human side of a contract which contains the unwritten values and expectations between an employer and employee.

The pandemic’s silver lining

It is clear though that the pandemic has created unexpected benefits; we are having more open conversations about mental health. Many of us have become more versed in the language of coping strategies and have increased our awareness of what helps us keep healthy. Line managers have got to know their staff better as they have become more aware individual circumstances.

Legally speaking, organisations have a duty of care to protect their employee’s health and safety, and this includes mental health and wellbeing. Under the Equality Act 2010, employers should also put in place reasonable adjustments for staff with a disability. Putting legality aside, taking time to understand the individual needs of staff and balancing these with the needs of the organisation is the right thing to do and will pay off. Staff who feel valued, listened to and supported will have better wellbeing and consequently will perform better.

With new ways of working, there comes a unique opportunity to create jobs that are good for wellbeing, where staff have more autonomy over how and where they do work.

For many, hybrid-working offers the opportunity for more adult-adult relationships, based on trust and contributions rather than time spent in the office. An employer that offers flexibility and wellbeing support will no doubt be attractive to future job seekers as well as a key factor in the retention of existing staff.

At Acas, often organisations go to them when things have gone ‘wrong’. In relation to mental health, this might be a high mental ill heath absence rate which an employer wishes to reduce, or a desire to increase awareness following a staff suicide; it might present as a claim for unfair dismissal or discrimination on an employee’s side. However, more and more we are seeing organisations wanting to focus on a proactive rather than reactive response.

The Acas response

From an employer’s side, leading and embedding a wellbeing strategy is crucial to taking a proactive approach. In our experience, for many employers, the intention is there, but the ‘how’ is what organisations need support with.  A simple but evidence-based framework, such as the mental health at work commitment, is a helpful starting point. A mental health champion in the leadership team and/or a mental health steering group for larger organisations can help ensure the plan stays on track.

Giving employees a greater voice in organisations through staff surveys, unions/employee reps can help employers identify and tackle the sources of stress as well as allow employees to have a say in decisions which impact them. It is important not to lose sight of what worked during lockdown to improve resilience and to continue to create opportunities for social connectedness alongside business as usual.

The role of the line manager has never been more important. Increasing management confidence and competence to manage staff is essential, particularly in a hybrid working environment. Managers need to be approachable, available and encourage team members to talk if they are having problems; to agree individual communication preferences and keep in regular contact with the team to check how they are coping. Also, key is the ability to spot the signs when someone is struggling and have sensitive, open and honest conversations. Presenteeism (working when unwell and working outside of contracted hours or using annual leave to work or when ill) are easier traps to fall into now and managers and employers need to be aware.

Staff need to be encouraged to take time to look after their own mental and physical health to avoid burnout. Digital wellbeing, scheduling breaks away from the screen, setting boundaries around work/home are increasingly important. It’s also important for staff to make use of internal resources e.g., ask for support from a colleague or managers if feeling under more pressure than usual, or via mental health first aiders or an employee assistance programme.

So, with a renewed focus on workplace mental health and a shared responsibility for its promotion, ask yourself what could you do to support mental health and wellbeing in your workplace?

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