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How can we work on mental health challenges ahead?

8th Oct 2020
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Many people across the country remain big fans of the workplace. But with mass office returns looking highly unlikely until at least the Spring, how can workplaces help employees with their mental wellbeing in the challenging Winter months to come?

It was on Monday 16 March – now nearly seven months ago – that AAT (Association of Accounting Technicians) employees last ventured into our central London office. That afternoon, along with thousands of companies across the capital and the nation, we took the decision that staff would be instead working remotely – something reinforced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson later that evening where he called on people to “start working from home where they possibly can.”

At that moment, no-one could have quite predicted the scale or the lengthy timeframe that was to follow. Coronavirus (Covid-19) cases were on the rise, but still stood at just 1,500 confirmed cases, and 55 deaths in the UK. Breezy predictions by workers filing out of our office that afternoon ranged from an office closure lasting for a couple of weeks up to three months.

But our overwhelming priority that day, and in the months that have passed since, was the welfare of our employees and the wider communities in which they live. While we put some preparations in place towards the end of summer for a potential office return, at least on a tactical basis for teams that might require some face-to-face meetings, these were somewhat stalled by the recent rise in cases and local lockdowns.

However, our discussions with employees did reveal a broad desire for greater social interaction. Some 40 per cent wished to return to the office sooner rather than later, on average for three days a week while continuing to work at home the rest of the time.

Mental health cannot be overlooked in battle against Covid-19

While AAT employees will now continue to work from home at least until the New Year, we are continually mindful of the emotional and mental battle that the pandemic presents. Not just because of the loss of the social element of work – in person at least – but also the natural impact of fears and concerns about vulnerable family and friends, and the uncertainty of what is to come.

Although it remains unclear whether further restrictions will be imposed upon us, be that locally or nationally, what is certain is that the days are already getting colder, and the nights longer. Therefore the engagement with nature and the outside world, so crucial for our mental health and wellbeing over the summer period, is likely to be more squeezed in the months to come.

For this year’s World Mental Health Day on Saturday 10 October, the theme is ‘mental health for all’. With everyone in the country, and indeed the vast majority of people worldwide, in some way affected by the pandemic, what cannot be ignored is that poor mental and psychological health can prove to have a longer-term detrimental impact to society than any virus. Writing as ‘MD’ in Private Eye back in May, Dr Phil Hammond said this:

“Even if a drug or vaccine rides to the rescue, the psychological effects of the pandemic will cast a long shadow. The “dread risk” of Covid-19 won’t vanish overnight. Some will struggle to go outdoors and back to work, others will become fearful if social distancing is relaxed from, say, 2m to 1m. Mass anxiety can imprison a nation. Kindness and understanding will be key.”

As the months roll by, and the pandemic shows no signs of going away, perhaps it’s no surprise that, mentally, many people are hitting the bottom of the bell-curve as shown below. Restrictions coming in first time represented uncharted territory; their lifting was a minor success, but a second spike is testing the nation’s nerve.

chart showing phases of Covid-19 crisis and wellbeing

How can organisations help?

Employee engagement when we are so physically distanced from each other has become more critical than ever. Here are some things we have done at AAT to help ensure staff don’t feel isolated and to aid their mental health during these unusual times:

  • If your company doesn’t already use a private networking tool such as Workplace, I would strongly recommend it. We not only use this tool to provide communications updates – including messages from the CEO, individual team successes and new product launches – but also as an opportunity for colleagues to virtually meet and discuss what they’ve been up to, and share fun and useful online resources with each other via our ‘Water cooler catch-ups’ group. There’s a ‘Thank you’ group too, for colleagues who wish to express their appreciation for others.
  • We’ve also been sharing regular wellbeing updates via email. These have included videos on keeping mentally and physically fit – for example through guided meditations and workouts – along with information about important initiatives including National Fitness Day. In addition, we’ve encouraged employees to access our Employee Assistance Programme, a free and confidential telephone service where staff can speak to a trained counsellor on issues including stress, bereavement, and legal help.
  • Finally, we have provided colleagues with the opportunity to access some group resilience coaching sessions which have run over a three-month period. As the last few months have been uncertain times, these sessions have supported colleagues with mindfulness techniques and helping them deal with challenging transitions.

Olivia Hill is Chief HR Officer at AAT.

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