As COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc across the world, employers are becoming increasingly more concerned about the wellbeing issues presented by the global pandemic.
While we’ve seen nations come together to act as a community and support mechanism during these struggling times, no one is immune to the mental health implications this virus can and has caused.
The Health Foundation found that more than two-thirds of adults in the UK (69%) reported feeling somewhat or very worried about the effect COVID-19 is having on their life. The most common issues affecting wellbeing are worrying about the future (63%), feeling stressed or anxious (56%) and feeling isolated (49%).
While the UK has already entered its second lockdown, as leaders, it’s essential that HR take responsibility to ensure the wellbeing stamina of workforces is catered to during difficult times.
PsycHR is a leading HR Consultancy and Training Provider, specialising in Mental Health. Since their foundation, they’ve had their sights set on balancing employee wellbeing and organisational productivity for organisations struggling with these sensitive matters. That’s why we asked the mental health specialists to share their thoughts on how HR can protect and improve an employee’s mental wellbeing during COVID-19.
1. With the majority of employees working remotely, how can HR suspect if members of their workforce are suffering from mental health issues?
Improved mental health support in the workplace can save UK businesses up to £8 billion per year, not to forget the importance it has on an employee’s standard of life. However, with the majority of workplaces operating remotely, it can be a real challenge to spot any signs of deteriorating mental health.
PsycHR: Often as HR professionals we rely on that age-old principle “we can only act if an employee makes us aware of an issue”, and for a long time employment law has protected us with managing people in this way. However, if you value employee productivity, retention and want to support your workforce more dynamically, you should be able to spot the signs.
The three most common workplace mental health issues are stress, anxiety and depression (Mind, 2019) and so training your managers and colleagues in Mental Health Awareness would be a good start (see our Module 1 ‘Understanding Mental Health’ on our website at https://www.psychr.co.uk/mental-health-training). However, for the purpose of this answer, we will outline questions you should be asking yourself to spot if an employee is struggling while working remotely.
- Is the employee communicating less than usual in meetings?
- Does the employee report that they are “struggling” or feel “overwhelmed”?
- Does the employee’s tone of voice sound less energetic than usual?
- Does the employee seem less engaged than usual?
- Does the employee seem more reclusive or is avoiding virtual social meetings?
- Is the employee cancelling regular catch-ups or meetings with managers, colleagues or clients?
- Is the employee generating fewer creative ideas than usual?
- Has the employee’s quality of work declined without a change in workload?
- Does the employee take longer than usual to complete their work?
- Has the employee reported difficulty sleeping or do they seem fatigued?
- Does the employee have a higher record of absence than usual?
- Has the employee expressed any concerns about their health mentally or physically?
- Is the employee worrying about eventualities without rational evidence?
- Does the employee appear to be overthinking or reported difficulty winding down?
Whether you recognise these behaviours in yourself or others, awareness is important for early intervention. The salient point is a change in behaviour; for example, an employee who is usually highly communicative in meetings and now seems quiet and reserved may be an indication of a change in wellbeing.
2. If spotted, how should HR approach the situation as an act of early intervention?
In a study surveying over 2,025 employees, Westfield Health uncovered that a staggering 86% do not feel their respective employers are doing enough to support their mental health issues related to stress, anxiety and other factors.
However, the research shows that workplaces that invest in early intervention and in-depth mental wellbeing practices provide a positive impact on their workforce’s mental wellbeing. With this said, what techniques can HR use for early intervention?
PsycHR: Using some of the observable behavioural changes described above may mean that a colleague, manager, or HR can spot an employee who might be experiencing mental ill-health. The first step for early intervention is always to ask the employee. This could be as simple as asking “how are you?”, “how are you feeling lately?” or for a more structured conversation PsycHR recommend the 4 Ps:
Place: Chose an appropriate place and time. We recommend booking a meeting room or if during lockdown you are working from home, schedule a one to one video call. You should select a time which is free from work pressures such as during lunch break or a quiet one-hour time slot. Approaching an employee expectedly while they are working may be frustrating if there are deadlines or work time pressures, and so they may not open up as much or be willing to share at all. Selecting the appropriate place should be conducive to openness and trust.
Privacy: Often, with any personal topic or health concern, employees can be worried about privacy. Ensure the meeting is away from colleagues or other onlookers to create a safe environment. The conversation should be confidential to the extent that the information should be only shared with those who will provide support or need to know. Who the information will be shared with and what is shared should be transparent to the employee. PsycHR recommends that usually wellbeing concerns are shared with external support, the manager and HR, so that reasonable adjustments can be made.
Perception: Considering how you might be perceived during the meeting by the employee is also important. Remember to be aware of your tone, use of language, approach, body language and message. The conversational skills used in this situation should be balanced, professional, calm, empathetic and supportive.
Prepare: Planning the structure of the meeting can help with the desired outcome. The purpose of the conversation should be to understand if there are any wellbeing concerns, changes that can be made, support that can be given and next steps. Tips: Start by asking the employee how they are feeling, mention any observed behaviours, provide reassurance, ask if any reasons for the change, use listening skills, take notes, ask what support the employee may think will help, make any reasonable suggestions, explain whom any information will be shared with, and discuss next steps for further support.
PsycHR offer training on communication styles, having difficult conversations, and our most popular Being human for managers. Up-skilling here can be useful for social and emotional intelligence.
3. How can HR support their staff’s mental health from a general perspective?
Unfortunately, as people continue to adjust working and general lifestyles to the ‘new normal’, it’s very possible that any mental health implications will be felt for many months or even years. That’s why it is so critical for HR to support their staff to prevent any further negative impacts.
PsycHR: Stigma is one of the biggest issues facing organisations with mental health in the workplace. With only 16% of employees feeling able to disclose mental ill health to their managers (BIC, 2017) it suggests that the culture may need to change in order to support employees from a general perspective. PsycHR suggests that organisations should not underestimate the extent that companywide displays of wellbeing acceptance can engage and motivate a workforce. Some ideas could be to:
- Develop a Mental Health policy
- Create a Mental Health procedure
- Deliver a Mental Health training programme
- Publish a Mental Health pledge
- Organise a wellbeing day including activities such as awareness, yoga and meditation
- Provide an Employee Assistance Programme or other similar support
- Offer absence on Wellbeing Wednesdays once a month or Flexible Fridays
- Consider a Cultural Change strategy
These motions can lower perceived stigma, encourage employees to talk more openly, and make employees feel more supported in the workplace. This can also be beneficial for the organisation’s external reputation. Recent research by PsycHR into Millennial and Generation Z motivations, found that they are more likely to apply to companies with clear social and moral values. Some say that today we are observing a societal shift where diversity seems to be a core principle for many people, and so organisations should be aware of these expectations for attracting, developing, motivating and retaining staff.
“Often a workforce is hugely diverse, and many successful organisations harness talent, skills and creativity from a range of people” (PsycHR, 2019)
Note that it is also important not to just have “one day” on wellbeing or mental health ambassadors “dotted” around. The organisation must make a real commitment to supporting mental health from the bottom-up or top-down of an organisation. And to ensure that managers and others are trained, so that if a wellbeing case arises, the employee is supported and actions are followed through as promised.
PsycHR have supported many companies by composing mental health policies and procedures, by organising wellbeing days, providing training, and composing strategies for cultural change to deal with this real issue, and drive company productivity forward.
4. The coronavirus pandemic and lockdown can be a very emotionally draining time, coupled with day-to-day responsibilities, how can HR look after their own mental wellbeing?
This global crisis is going to affect us all in some way and it doesn’t matter who you are, what you do or what role you have in the organisation – impact is inevitable. On top of this, people professionals often don’t look after their own wellbeing, but instead, put their people first.
PsycHR: Prioritising your own mental wellbeing is just as important as supporting employees. During this time, HR’s workload may increase due to redundancy projects, a reduced workforce, more questions from worried employees working from home, supporting managers with performance or conduct issues, managing communication and processes to support the ‘new normal’ workplace as it was earlier described by Natural HR. Some suggestions for supporting your own wellbeing is as follows:
Work together on projects: Teamwork can increase morale. Although work can be done in solitude, such a checking a spreadsheet, often it could also be done with a colleague. So, try jumping on a video call or telephone and shout out data while the other checks (be careful of GDPR if not in a private place). Working with a colleague can also mean that work is done faster and allows ideas to be shared and improvements made.
Working times: It can be easy to work late often into the night, especially if you are busy. Be strict with yourself by setting your start and end time for work, as consistently working late is not usually sustainable and can affect your wellbeing. An idea is to set an alarm 30 mins before you are due to end work, to allow yourself that cooldown time to close off and send those final emails. Remember “tomorrow is another day” and also that whatever you send in the evening will likely only be seen by the recipient at some point the next day anyway so sometimes sending it in the morning works.
Time management: When workload is high, think about prioritising, negotiate deadlines, try to delegate, and be able to say “no”. As workload rises, set expectations with management or clients using clear communication.
Referrals: Often, when an employee raises a concern, HR might make a referral to an external mental health specialist like PsycHR or an employee assistance programme. Ensure you also self-refer have a colleague refer you. Remember that usually “you are an employee too” and so use the benefits available to you.
Resources: If work cannot be done in the allocated time due to an increased workload, you may choose to enlist the support of an external HR consultancy for a temporary period. This can often be less costly than most think. It saves on fixed-term contracts and recruitment, avoids employer costs and responsibilities, and invites an expert who can quickly pick up workload or take on a project.
5. Finally, what is the best advice you’d give to HR leaders out there, who are running their organisation while looking after employee mental health?
PsycHR: Mental health in the workplace is becoming more and more important. Only over the last three years has mental health research really been highlighted. This has mainly been since the Stevenson and Farmer ‘Thriving at Work’ (2017) report which was commissioned by the government to investigate the cost of mental health to employers and the UK economy. The statistics include:
- There is a £33 billion to £42 billion annual cost to employers of between due to mental health
- 300,000 people with a long-term mental health problem lose their jobs each year
- Manager mental health training programmes could lead to a significant reduction in work-related sickness absence, with an associated return on investment of £9.98 for each pound spent on such training
- Poor mental health costs the UK economy £74 billion to £99 billion per year
Follow up research since has suggested an increase in these statistics, with Mind (2020) most recently reporting that 1 in 4 people will experience mental health issues in England.
PsycHR says that HR industry professionals who invest in proactively managing mental health in the workplace, should experience less of an impact on organisational productivity. Impact includes absence, sick pay, company pay, benefits, loss of sales in some roles, loss of output, secondary pressures on work teams, presenteeism, cost of benefits and much more.
Demonstrating understanding, flexibility and dynamic thinking should mean that today you are ahead of the curve during a time that mental health could soon be considered a workplace pandemic.
PsycHR offer free consultations and are open to receiving all questions.
A copy of their mental health training e-brochure can be downloaded here.
One of their most popular services at the moment is the PsycHR Wellbeing Assessment. This is usually carried out with an employee who is on sick absence or even with an employee who is within the organisation and there are concerns about their wellbeing. The purpose of the Wellbeing Assessment is to find out the reasons behind any wellbeing issues and explores both work and personal life, considering various factors including: variety, control, autonomy, relationships, dynamics and more. PsycHR then produces a full written report for the employer with recommendations to reintegrate and retain the employee within the workforce. Alternative courses of action can also be discussed if retention is not possible within the organisation.