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mental health post pandemic

What did the pandemic teach us about mental health?

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As mental health eclipses stress as one of the top work-related factors affecting the health of adults in the UK over the last decade, Thom Dennis explores the lessons we have learned since the pandemic.

17th Aug 2022
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Stress has been one of the top work-related factors that affect the health of adults in the UK in the last decade. That was pre-pandemic, but the situation is now much worse. We are still living with the after-effects of Long Covid, trauma, grief and instability.

The first tribunal proving Long Covid is a disability under the Equality Act has already taken place and the virus continues with unpredictable long-term consequences. So did we learn anything about prioritising our health at work from the pandemic or are we simply going back to the way things were? For many, the jury is still out.

Whilst there has been some success over the last ten years in opening up a dialogue about mental health there is a huge way to go

The mental health burden is real

Many of us are struggling with poor mental health, burnout and anxiety. In April 2021 McKinsey stated that at least 49% of respondents said they feel somewhat burned out. Work-related mental ill-health was costing UK businesses up to £45 billion in 2019, but those numbers are now £56 billion a year according to Deloitte, an increase of around 25%. This is likely because of staff turnover, absenteeism and the negative impact on productivity and profits for staff who are unable to cope due to mental health issues. 

In February 2022 the ONS stated that 78% of those who worked from home in some capacity said that this gave them an improved work-life balance and 47% also reported improved wellbeing. The pandemic taught some to prioritise work/life balance and re-introduced them to more outdoor pursuits and the importance of community and purpose. 

Whilst there has been some success over the last ten years in opening up a dialogue about mental health there is a huge way to go. Long gone is the time when employees just came to work, clocked in, did their job and went home again. It really is time for businesses to understand the importance of wellbeing and in particular mental health, because so many more of us are suffering. Wellbeing has never been so important to our lives and livelihoods. 

One of the issues facing employers today is they need to address a spectrum of mental wellbeing needs because different people are affected by poor mental health in unique ways, and the necessary levels of expertise in this area are often lacking. In addition, many in senior leadership drive so hard, that they unwittingly create burnout in themselves and those around them; it can be very difficult to recognise it in oneself.

Trying to go back to the way things were, won’t have the desired result. Workers’ expectations have grown, and we need to learn the lessons about wellbeing the pandemic taught us. We have been resilient, but we need time to heal and be strong for the next round of upheavals.

So what have we learned?

1. There will be more disruptions

The US and the UK were the two countries best prepared for a pandemic but unfortunately, their governments ignored the plans and took their reactive routes. A key action, for now, is to write up our learnings, create contingency plans, and train our people accordingly. In this way, next time we can implement these plans, even in diverse situations. 

2. It’s not just about the business anymore

According to McKinsey, 30% of respondents say they are likely to switch jobs if returned to full onsite work. Key learning from the pandemic is that leaders need to think about the needs of the individual as well as the requirements of the business before they lose valuable talent. It is important to give everyone a very clear lead which takes in the needs of both. 

Employee wellbeing leaders need to show real empathy and deal with employee uncertainty and health issues with compassion

3. Adopt a strategic approach based on key health and performance drivers

Workplace health initiatives (including sickness absence management), employee benefits and rewards are defined in most companies separately which is likely an expensive uncoordinated strategy. 

4. Don’t let your colleagues get burnout

Responsibility and relationships are at the heart of caring for colleagues. McKinsey has found that 47% of respondents want increased focus on employee wellbeing leaders need to show real empathy and deal with employee uncertainty and health issues with compassion and this is something that doesn’t always come naturally but can be trained.

Look for the signs of burnout, long-term anxiety, trauma and grief. Start conversations with employees and see how best you can meet their needs. Ensure your work culture does not support long-term working out of hours, holidays not being taken and poor work/life balance.

5. Check for inequality

For example, women are tending to want to work from home more than their male colleagues. This creates the risk of men being more favourably positioned to get a promotion because they are more visible by their actual presence. Also, the cost of living crisis is causing many workers to grapple with rising costs and struggle to make ends meet. Leaders must do what they can to ensure equality.

6. Ensure psychological safety

This enables individuals to reach out and gives them permission to talk about what is on their minds because they feel included, supported and safe. When people feel safe they are more likely to bring their entire self to work.

7. Better crisis training

All leaders, particularly senior ones, will benefit from training that enhances their self-awareness and ability to lead in circumstances where nothing is clear or predictable.

People with the most resilience find a way to emotionally heal and move forward from stress or trauma

8. Build relations, particularly across divides

Encourage full participation, inclusion, and respect, and build mutual understanding, especially across interpersonal and cultural divides. Define your values, optimise learning from one another, foster connections using dialogue, and organise training and team events which everyone can attend. 

9. Build resilience by empowering

People with the most resilience find a way to emotionally heal and move forward from stress or trauma. Empowering your team often helps them build resilience. Let people play to their strengths.  

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