Head of Mental Health Utopia
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Three ways to prioritise mental wellbeing in cautious times

As we cautiously head back into the office or embrace a new way of working, it’s time to address a key issue that’s been neglected by many employers during lockdown: employee mental health.

28th Jul 2020
Head of Mental Health Utopia
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Concept image of depression and anxiety. Waste paper and head silhouette.
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Our tentative return to offices is increasingly accompanied by that now-hackneyed phrase ‘the new normal’. Don’t get me wrong, of course things are different now, and there’s no back-to-before. In the rush to plough ahead, however, it’s important to bring employee mental health firmly back onto the agenda.  

Following through a mental wellbeing strategy with action that covers the whole business is vital.

In lockdown, the focus on rolling our sleeves up and just getting on with the ‘doing’ meant that employee mental health was bubbling under, battling with working hours as the office and the kitchen became the same thing. That’s not to say employers haven’t been empathetic – a number have reached out to us at Utopia, for help in solving challenges their workforces have faced during lockdown – but it can be difficult for businesses, with no guidance, to make this sort of change long-term.  

As we head cautiously back into the office, employers will have to address how they look after their people, and how proper mental health awareness and care can be baked into the business. Here are three things employers can start implementing now, which will lay the groundwork for happy, healthy workforces to thrive for years to come.    

Re-evaluate presenteeism

As workplaces open up, a significant portion of employees may stay remote for some time. A recent survey showed that 63% of UK workers think working from home is on par with working from the office, feelings which are no doubt amplified when everything still feels unsafe. Working from home brings its own challenges, however, not least because the average Brit has worked an additional 28 hours per month under lockdown.  

When some workers are remote and others are in the office, it’s crucial to establish clear ground rules and boundaries for both parties. Think of simple things like ‘no overtime unless it’s business critical’, or giving employees the opportunity to work in time slots that are more convenient to their personal situation – just a simple thumbs-up for rules like these can make a world of difference for employees. Those in the physical office won’t feel the need to overcompensate and ‘catch up’ with those working at home, and in the same vein, those working remotely will feel the pressure loosen.

At the core of this is respecting people as individuals, allowing them to be clear about what makes them most productive, and accommodating that as best as you can.  

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Create an open, safe environment for all

The first thing can’t happen without an open, safe environment where people can raise their hands, ask for help and question decisions being made. For example, it's much easier for senior people to flex their workload, push back, and generally manage their time and work more freely than it is for those who report into them. I know that if I need to get something done on a Wednesday night, I can probably take some time off on Friday afternoon to compensate for it.  

For someone more junior, or someone with an employer refusing to flex, that’s not the case. Employers have a responsibility, now more than ever, to take into account the change to people’s working patterns. This goes beyond the juggle parents are facing caring for their young children – the pandemic has affected people who in turn care for their parents, people who live in shared accommodation, and neurodiverse people who’ve already had their routines shaken by current events. Anyone and everyone deserves a voice, which is why support networks are required: mentors, groups, teams of people who can listen and then act upon employee feedback.  

This means input from everyone, including the senior leadership team. People need to feel they can voice their concerns and say when they’re not ok, and those in charge need to be willing to take that on board and see what they can do to ensure people don’t feel pressured.  

Keep mental health on the agenda, no matter what

A senior member at one of Utopia’s clients took their staff out of work for a whole day the other month, to take part in a mental health workshop. Their reasoning? ‘Your wellbeing is more important than your jobs’.  

That was an amazing statement, and the initial daylong investment has been built on – that client constantly evaluates and addresses mental health across its workforce: what they can do to improve, where the successes have been, and what else can be learned.  

Following through a mental wellbeing strategy with action that covers the whole business is vital. Silos don’t stick, but a plan that has buy-in, sign-off and continued active input from the senior leadership team does. For the change to be organisation-wide and long lasting, it needs those in charge to initially drive it.  

There is no quick fix

The awareness of mental health problems has historically fluctuated in intensity – how seriously it’s been taken has depended on the state of the world, and if mental health has been a ‘talking point’.  Now, we really are at the stage where it needs to be taken seriously across all sectors, for everyone, all the time – the human and financial cost of not doing so is too great. Every year, poor mental health costs UK workplaces £43 billion. It also costs 6,507 lives.  

The workplace can’t completely eradicate mental health issues from employees’ lives, but it can surely play a significant part.  

Interested in this topic? Read Return to work: HR must prioritise mental health as lockdown eases.

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