Mental Health After Covid
For Mental Health Awareness Week, Polly Collingridge, our international wellbeing resource associate has looked at employee mental health after covid.
The mental health of the nation – of all nations – has suffered during the pandemic. At the same time, we have experienced a global paradigm shift in our ways of working. As lockdown eases many employees are starting to trickle back into the office. Others are entering a new era of hybrid working while still others are continuing to work from home – perhaps their employers have relinquished their office space permanently. This is the time for employers to turn their thoughts to how best to support employee mental health and wellbeing during this new era. Surely the old wellbeing perks such as subsidized gym membership and free fruit bowls are more than a little redundant now? It feels as though there needs to be a re-think to make sure that wellbeing programmes are fit for purpose. Employers need to acknowledge the collective trauma of the pandemic and recognise that this whole experience has changed people irrevocably. This is a fantastic opportunity to overhaul ineffective wellbeing programmes. But how should employers meet this challenge?
The fact is that we all have to navigate the stresses of life. Often it’s low-level stuff, such as being stuck in traffic and running late to pick the kids up from school. Sometimes there are chronic problems that eat away at us such as ongoing relationship issues. Occasionally we are struck with those out-of-the blue highly stressful events, a global pandemic, or the sudden death of a close relative… or both. Of course some people get dealt more than their fair share of problems and some find it easier than others to maintain an equilibrium under the strain. There are multiple factors that impact on our ability to handle stress, and certainly genetics play their part. But there is so much more employers can do to make sure their employees are as resilient as possible.
Let’s start with mental health. The trouble is that, for many people, ‘mental health’ actually makes them think of mental ill- health, or rather mental illness. Certainly corporate wellbeing programmes have tended to look at the negative rather than the positive – focusing on problems such as workplace absenteeism and presenteeism (which we automatically associate with employees with poor mental health). Solutions such as ‘Mental Health First Aid’ programmes are implemented in order to address such problems. These are undoubtedly valuable but nevertheless do tend to reinforce the ‘mental health as mental illness’ idea: a reactive response to a crisis rather than a proactive measure to ensure mentally healthy people stay that way.
No wonder mental health can often feel like a bit of a taboo subject. Who wants to tell their boss they are clinically depressed? The point is of course, that we don’t need to be clinically depressed to have a problem. In fact, we don’t even need to have a problem to want to improve our mental health. As a post-Covid society, employers should look to re-frame mental health in a much more positive way. Instead of thinking, ‘my employees are fine as long as they’re not mentally ill’, they should be asking, ‘under what conditions do my employees thrive?’ Employers that aspire to ask the right questions, and resolve to listen to the answers, will understand how to create the optimum working conditions for their employees to perform at the top of their game and will reap the rewards.
Employers also need to understand the holistic nature of mental health. Wellbeing is made up of several closely interconnected pillars: mental health does not exist as a standalone entity but is intertwined with physical, social and financial wellbeing. Our mood improves after physical exercise; people with financial worries are more likely to be depressed; chronic stress impacts negatively on our physical health; and our social wellbeing – so often overlooked in the workplace – is intricately connected to all of these too. A workplace culture that doesn’t trust their employees, give them adequate recognition or allow them a sense of purpose will certainly not promote mental health. A lack of autonomy and flexibility will likewise have a negative impact on mental wellbeing. The lockdowns have allowed many a flexibility over their working hours they could only have dreamed of before and they don’t want to relinquish that because they have experienced first-hand that it is directly related to increased productivity and an enhanced quality of life.
The work/life juggle has always been a challenge and the boundaries between the two have become increasingly blurred with so many people working from home. The truth is, an employee’s home life related stress doesn’t disappear when they are working and vice versa. Employers therefore can support employee mental health by providing advice and solutions that straddle both the personal and professional sphere.
And finally, to really make a difference to employee mental health and overall wellbeing, employers should only implement wellbeing programmes as part of a carefully considered wellbeing strategy. Workplace wellbeing is reflected in the way everyone interacts with each other, not just detailed in a handbook or listed on a whiteboard. If wellbeing is prioritised and embedded in the company culture it will do wonders for everyone’s mental health.
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