How Employers Can Support Their Employees Mental Health During Covid-19

April 9, 2020

Several phrases have very quickly become part of our daily vocabulary. My conversations and newsfeed are scattered with reference to social distancing, lockdown, self-isolation and, in the business world, pivoting.

What we are referring to is the way that companies are being advised to pivot in response to the crisis and rapidly alter their approach to adapt to current demands, whether that be a swift movement online or to quickly innovate to create new products to align with the shift in commercial need. And whilst there has been a lot of discussion around the remarkable speed many organisations have pivoted their business operations to respond to the situation, my personal area of focus (and concern) is actually how much thought organisations are investing in pivoting their approach to their employee mental health and putting effort into adapting their existing wellbeing strategy so that their biggest asset is supported and protected.

Any effective mental health strategy must be implemented in the day to day business operations. These operations have changed substantially and significantly over recent weeks and as such, every employer needs to think of the changes they can make to reflect this in relation to their staff wellbeing. Those who make this transition more readily will be those that already adopt a proactive strategy to employee wellbeing that is embedded in their business culture, those that go beyond free fruit Friday and annual wellbeing days to create a psychologically safe working culture that is authentic and genuinely effective. However, what is indisputable is that every company needs to make the move to acknowledge that their current approach needs addressing and adapting to ensure that their people feel mentally supported during a time that is fraught with anxiety, stress and uncertainty. Not only is this critical in the present moment but the steps taken now will also hugely impact how employees feel about their employer in the future, when they have the capacity to reflect back on this time and how they were treated when it mattered the most.

So, what can employers do to ‘pivot’ their wellbeing strategy? What steps can be taken to positively lead workforces through the current troubled waters until the storm has passed?

Have a communication strategy

More than ever, it is essential that a clear communication strategy is implemented to ‘check in’ with staff to ascertain how they are feeling about their current situation. This is not about performance, productivity and targets but a focused opportunity to actively ask how people are adjusting to the situation and the challenges they are facing. Make no assumptions about those who you may think to be adequately coping; this is an unprecedented situation and as such, nobody can predict how anyone else might respond. Some of your staff may be facing thoughts and feelings they have never experienced before and whilst there will be similarities, there will also be differences. For example, those high in empathy may experience intense levels of emotional sensitivity and struggle to talk about the pandemic. Those who are more analytical and practical may be more prone to focusing on what commercial steps need to be taken without being as mindful of the humanitarian impact. The key is to remember that there is no right or wrong but that everyone is supported and respected in their response.

Managers should use virtual meetings to openly ask everyone how they are coping and help lead by example through honestly sharing their own personal challenges to help normalise the conversation around mental health and provide transparency and reassurance. Isolation and the sudden shift to remote working can bring it’s own challenges, without even considering the wider situation and restrictions imposed by lockdown, so be incredibly mindful of ways that you can remain connected to your people and that they can remain connected to each other. This includes promoting positive and encouraging messages about switching off, self-care and rest. Staff need to be reminded that during this time their wellbeing is an absolute priority to the business, particularly as we think towards the future and how we can help our people emerge from this crisis with minimal impact on their mental health.   

A Time for Learning and Development

Think about providing/refreshing mental health awareness training, with a focus on identifying signs of concern when employees are working remotely. Feeling competent and capable in identifying signs of concern is a very different when staff are geographically dispersed, and changes are not as readily apparent. Circulate online training to key personnel (e.g. supervisory staff/leaders/mental health first aiders) to provide them with the insight to recognise the signs of concern. Whilst it is natural and normal to feel stressed and anxious, key staff need to feel confident in intervening if a colleague or employee feels unable to cope. This includes helping individuals understand their own responses and coping mechanisms.

Take the opportunity to conduct a training needs assessment and gap analysis to ascertain what training would help staff (now and in the future) and how it can be provided. Depending on the business size, consider setting up a working group of employees from across the business to discuss what training they feel would be of benefit to the organisation. Use the focus group to proactively discuss the unique challenges faced and what might help staff psychologically and practically. Think about what resources are available and how to meet diverse needs. You may also want to consider issuing a staff survey to ask employees what would help could benefit them. Engagement, consultation and pro activity is key. Not only can you take the opportunity help people learn about coping with the present but take the opportunity to help them learn and grow, to develop competence and knowledge that will prove invaluable to their future. Strengthen skills and remember that this is an effective way of helping people feel that they are doing something progressive and positive.

Establish the new norm

Create a new routine that reflects the needs of your people. Openly discuss and agree your new ways of working and set expectations around ways that you will all connect moving forwards. Weekly virtual meetings? Daily emails? The usual protocol and norms that people have become accustomed have been radically changed, in some cases overnight, so helping to establish new footings will help provide a level of comfort and normalcy. As part of this new routine, facilitate opportunities for people to simulate the virtual water cooler and just chat about subjects other than work. Encourage colleagues to help each other by sharing positive news and coping strategies. Create opportunities for people to talk about how they are adjusting and overcoming situations will help inspire and empower others. Think about how this could be implemented, whether it be circulating a positive video anecdote or inviting a different employee to kick-off every virtual meeting with an example of something that they have achieved/accomplished that week. The key is to help instill positive messages during a time when people feel overwhelmed with negativity. This will also help enhance levels of peer support and morale as well as help employees to learn from their working community about how they can cope.

 Promote Support, Resources and Policies

Be clear and concise about the specific support and resources available to staff. This is a great opportunity to reinforce the internal network of support mechanisms and services, as well as think about external support too. Be extremely detailed and use practical scenarios to demonstrate how services could help as opposed to just signposting with contact details. It is highly likely that the current reality will adversely affect people’s mental health and it is critical that they are encouraged to reach support and feel reassured that feeling this way is normal. Don’t just expect people to understand and know what support is there and how to access it. Likewise, for any new tech that may be introduced. Ensure that staff are provided with the support to use whatever resources are required. Some may have used video conferencing before, some may not. Some may have a strong WIFI signal at home, some may not. Some may have a home office, some may not. Be broad in considering what practical help might be needed and ensure that all needs are met.

Talk to staff regularly about changes within the business and how the organisation is responding to the crisis. When fear and anxiety run deep, it is common for rumours to become rife and assumptions made so to counter this, clear and decisive communication is needed to ensure that people feel informed. Ensure the organisation actively promotes relevant internal policies that may be relevant for staff to access, as well as wider policies (such as government support initiatives) that could help in specific circumstances. Be extremely mindful of how news is communicated and ensure that managers are equipped with the skills to know how to navigate any questions that may be posed.

Assess Risk

The stressors that staff may ordinarily be exposed to may have radically changed so it is necessary to implement a plan for how the current risks will be managed. Whilst the main stressor is the pandemic, work-related factors may easily compound levels of anxiety and stress so these must be reassessed, if only informally at a management level, to establish whether the imposed changes have affected the way an employee responds to potential hazards.

For example:

Do they feel able to cope with their current workload? Have they got enough to do or are they stagnating? Are expectations around performance considered achievable given the expected reduced in productivity in the current climate? How are they adjusting to their current temporary work environment? Are they taking sufficient breaks at home and maintaining a work life balance?

Do they feel supported during this time? Do they know who to talk to if they are struggling to cope with their work or their situation? How are they adjusting to being in isolation?

Do they feel that skills are being utilised? How do they feel about their involvement in business decisions during lockdown? Are they given the opportunity to communicate feedback?

How do they feel about the recent work changes? Are they kept up to date with the business plans for the short-term future?

Are processes in place to tackle forms of inappropriate behaviour (e.g. discriminatory behaviour about the way people are reacting/coping, people not being included in virtual meetings)? What opportunities are in place to help maintain positive working relationships? 

Is there clarity around their current role? Are responsibilities clearly defined for each person in the team? Do people know how their own role has changed in light of the way the overall business may ‘pivoted’.

The above questions are examples of points that need to be considered during the current ‘norm’ to ensure that there is an ongoing commitment to recognising that changes are made where necessary to minimise work-related stress. At a time when societal stress levels are already high, it is critical that employers take the steps to manage psychosocial hazards and ensure that work remains a source of positivity, respite and support as opposed to an aggravator of mental ill-health.

Show patience and compassion

Above all, ensure that the organisational approach is one based on patience and compassion. This point in our lives will be marked in history as a time that we are all united in facing a situation that means we all understand that it is okay not to be okay. Stress, anxiety, uncertainty and fear are things we have all experienced over recent weeks and organisations can use this to build empathic connections with their people based on a shared understanding of what we have all faced together. 

Moving forwards, make sure the steps taken are decisive and that your organisation is demonstrating accountability for its responsibility for its staff. Take strategic and considered steps and avoid the organisational equivalent of panic buying to try and quickly react to the crisis. Instead, be measured and targeted in your approach, being mindful of what you want to achieve, how you will do it and why. Research providers and ensure that any new services are fit for purpose and fit for your people.

Essentially, the decisions made and actions taken over the coming weeks will have a lasting impact on the future of every business and their staff. The landscape may change forever, but we can build positive foundations by doing the right thing now. Figures published this week in a 2020 report by the CIPD and Simplyhealth showed that only 31% of managers are considered to be sufficiently confident to initiate discussions around mental health and that 60% of organisations reported an increase in common mental health conditions (such as anxiety and depression) among employees over the last year. Whilst this research was conducted before the pandemic, it is highly likely that the crisis will exacerbate these conditions. As such, every organisation needs to stop and think about the steps they are taking right now to optimise their staff wellbeing.

This is a time for organisations to radically lead, to be a source of reassurance, support and positivity and make a timely shift to pivot their approach to managing staff mental health.

For manager advice for supporting employee wellbeing during COVID-19, here is a short video to walk through some tips. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-i5DNDn4Rc&t=193s

For more information on adjusting your mental health strategy or help managing staff wellbeing, contact us at [email protected]

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