Mental health awareness: why wellbeing is a business critical issue
This Mental Health Awareness Week (18 – 24 May 2020) is a particularly challenging one for a lot of people as we all come to terms with the current situation, but a renewed focus on wellbeing can only be a good thing.
HR has to wear many hats during this crisis. There’s day-to-day HR management to keep on top of, a task that’s now infinitely more complex due to employees being furloughed and regular work schedules becoming a thing of the recent past. Then there’s a steady flow of C-suite directions to act on, compliance issues to consider, the future of work to consider and how we’ll bring people back into the organisation (that’s if they even want to go back to working in the way they did pre-pandemic). More than anything though, the most important task for HR and managers right now is taking care of the wellbeing side of things. There’s widespread recognition that organisations need to take extra special care of their people so that they remain happy, healthy and high performing. Suddenly, wellbeing has become the right thing to do.
Good mental health is a significant contributor to overall wellbeing and this being Mental Health Awareness Week, there is more reason than ever before for employers to raise the conversation.
As a leadership coach and wellbeing specialist, I’ve spoken to many employees and business leaders in recent weeks. They’re all facing challenges. Working from home with children, feelings of isolation, financial anxiety, struggling to know what the priorities are, mental exhaustion, the blurring of work and home life, feeling good one day and anxious the next. These are well documented by now, so how do we address them? By focusing on three key things that employees need in the midst of this pandemic: the need to feel supported and connected, the need to be trusted by their employer, and the need to put their wellbeing first.
Recognising the human responses
We're seeing very human responses to this pandemic and the situation is fluid. ‘Jack from marketing’ might feel great on Monday but terrible on Tuesday. By Wednesday, he might feel as though he’s got his stress levels under control, only for something to happen in his work or family life that throws him off again. Managers have to be willing to respond to these changes on a daily basis. Here’s the thing though: they can only do that if they’re having regular, two-way conversations with employees. The companies I'm working with are, and they are seeing the benefits of spending more time discussing priorities and support needs.
Good mental health is a significant contributor to overall wellbeing and this being Mental Health Awareness Week, there is more reason than ever before for employers to raise the conversation about how they can best support people.
A recent survey assessing the effects of Covid-19 on employees provides some interesting reading. Of the 2,364 respondents, more than half said they feel good, but that leaves almost half who are not feeling good – a combination of anxious, stressed, isolated, bored, unappreciated or sad people. Whichever side of the scale your team is sitting on, how do you make sure they stay resilient and get the support they need to take care of their mental health during such a challenging time?
Care in a crisis
With the importance of mental health very much magnified due to the pandemic, HR teams are recognising the importance of keeping people mentally fit, making sure that people are getting the support, guidance and tools they need.
Coronavirus came about quickly and we’ve had to mobilise just as quickly in response. Managers are having to quickly become coaches and HR teams are having to come up with new ways of offering support. With that in mind, here are five recurring human challenges I’ve seen as a result of this crisis, along with some key advice for managers and HR:
1. Challenge: ongoing uncertainty and lack of control
Advice: Managers should maintain regular contact with employees and have meaningful two-way conversations. Get comfortable talking about how people are feeling. Let them know that it's OK not to be OK. Reiterate that you’re in this together. For those struggling with the uncertainty that this crisis has created, encourage them to take control of what they can in their own world and help them to recognise that others feel the same – they are normal. Making sure that people have clarity around what they are working on will help. Some useful questions are:
- Are you getting the support that you need?
- Do you think we’re doing enough as a team/company to handle this?
- Is your home working space working for you?
- Are you clear about your priorities? What help do you need from me?
- Are you feeling connected to the team?
- Are you feeling in balance?
- Do you know where to go if you need more help?
2. Challenge: shifting energy levels and figuring out a new routine
Advice: Give employees the flexibility they need. Give them the freedom to work to a schedule that suits them wherever possible. If that means starting and finishing at different times, make allowances for that. Being online all day can be tough and regular rest breaks are important. Don’t expect people to be ‘present’ all of the time. Acknowledge the challenges that people are facing and let them know it’s ok to fit work around the other demands on their time and energy.
3. Challenge: people feeling isolated and worried
Advice: Get people talking about how to solve this together. Create more opportunities to check in with each other and to co-create solutions to the real human challenges people are facing as well as operational and strategic needs. This situation is new to most of us and you can do things differently. Rather than coming up with central policies, speak to the team(s) and ask them what they think. Generate conversation around how people are doing and what they’re doing to take care of their wellbeing and productivity. There has never been a better time to learn from each other and to solve problems together. This is what true engagement really is. Speaking up about how you’re feeling should be the norm, there should be no downside to that.
4. Challenge: pressure to create new habits and self-improve
Advice: We’re living in a time of crisis. People should not feel like they have to change their lives and the way they live because others think it’s a great opportunity. Let people do things in their own time. Signpost great ideas and opportunities and share the great new habits that others have created, but don’t expect everyone to be motivated or to have the headspace or time to overhaul their lives. Let employees know that it’s ok to do what’s right for them in their own time.
5. Challenge: leaders feeling they need to be strong for everyone else
Advice: Recognise that ‘hero mode’ is not a sustainable strategy and that rescuing everyone else or coming up with the answers to all of the problems, is not necessary. Leaders need to look after themselves so that they are able to take care of their employees. Show your employees that you’re taking care of yourself by intentionally having breaks, leaving work early, and doing exercise during the day. Don’t stay switched on all of the time. Share how you’re feeling about things too. You don’t need to be a superhero in all of this. You need to provide direction and make sure people feel supported, and you need to manage your energy. Showing some vulnerability will enable people to do the same and will create more trust between you and the team. Trust in teams leads to better wellbeing and productivity and so being ‘real’ makes a difference.
Interested in this article? Read Return to work: HR must prioritise mental health in the post-pandemic workplace.
Natasha Wallace is founder and chief coach of Conscious Works, an organizational wellbeing company that works with leaders and teams to create healthy, thriving and human workplaces where self awareness and an awareness of others leads to higher levels of performance and wellbeing.