It’s been more than a year (1 year, 1 week and 3 days if you’re being particular), since Boris Johnson announced a national lockdown in the UK.
The whole situation has had a devastating effect on many people’s mental health: the Centre for Mental Health estimates that up to 10 million people in the UK will require new or additional mental health support as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic response.
Work is inextricably linked to this, both as a source of additional stress and as a potential support system.
For despite giving up everything else, we have continued to work.
In fact, most people are working harder and longer than ever before: employees working on average the equivalent of four extra days a month in unpaid overtime.
This increases the likelihood of burnout, while at the same time it’s harder for managers to see if someone is struggling when everyone is remote.
But it’s not just COVID and its associated lockdowns that are causing mental health problems. Even before 2020, two in five office workers reported feeling lonely at work. In the UK that rises to three in five.
And those who are lonely are more likely to say they are depressed five years later.
This is bad enough in itself but mental health also has an impact on physical health. One shocking statistic is that those with depression are 50% more likely to die of cancer and 67% more likely to die of heart disease.
All of these reasons should be sufficient to convince any leader to make mental health a priority.
But in case you (or your boss) are something of a Scrooge McDuck, there’s also the impact on the bottom line to consider: mental health problems cost businesses in the UK almost £35 billion every year.
So with all that in mind, what can you do to best support your team’s mental health?
1.Show that mental health is a priority
A commitment to supporting mental health has to start from the top. Employees will feel far more able to speak about mental health issues if they know they will be supported.
And that means really showing it: it’s no good offering a free mindfulness class if employees don’t feel able to take the time off to attend.
2.Check in with people
It sounds simple but it’s worth saying: check in with your team. It can be far harder to see someone’s struggling if you’re not working side-by-side with them every day.
Yes, it might feel like we’re all currently on a million Zoom calls at the moment but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to intuitively grasp when something’s amiss. Unless you carve out time to have those conversations, they aren’t going to happen.
If your understanding of what to ask goes no further than “U ok, hun?”, these questions will help you ask how you can best support a team member.
3.Give people the space to show they’re struggling
This might sound like a repetition of point two and that I’m just trying to pad out this list - but it’s actually something separate.
This is about putting systems in place to allow people to flag how they are doing or what they need.
One common approach is to use a traffic light system as an easy shorthand for how people are doing. At Buffer they use this as a quick way to check in with people at the start of a small group meeting and be more open about their emotional states.
But it can also be used by managers who can signal to their employees to get in touch if they are feeling “amber” so they can work together to stop them becoming “red”. (If you hadn’t guessed, green is where you want to be.)
Staff surveys with specific questions about mental health are also really important to get a snapshot of the organisation and perhaps find out what support people want. (See point 10. No spoilers.)
One reason people may be struggling or working overtime may be because the expectations of their company hasn’t changed.
While many companies have leveled up their mental health support in the last year, that has not led to a rethinking of performance targets. This is particularly difficult for those whose ability to do their job has been impacted by the pandemic - whether that’s a salesperson whose market has radically shifted or a parent who is juggling work and home schooling.
McKinsey found that less than a third of employers have adjusted their performance review criteria to take this into account, forcing some people to either work crazy hours or accept that they won’t reach their targets - and the consequences that come with that.
5.Rethink ways of working
Many organisations adopted remote working in a rush, anticipating it would only last three weeks, and have since had to go back with sticking plaster solutions.
One common complaint is that managers are overcompensating for lack of eyeline supervision by stuffing the day with unnecessary meetings. In fact, one of the reasons for people working late is because they spend so much time in meetings they don’t have any time to actually do their work.
Of course, sometimes meetings are necessary. One suggestion from executive coach Phanella Mayall Fine is that 1-to-1 meetings should always be phone calls so that participants can get away from the screen and go for a walk at the same time.
6.Give people time
Coming back to the aforementioned meetings, this may mean decimating the amount of meetings you are having, setting limits on the number of meetings in a day or adopting “no meetings Friday”.
But also consider other ways you can give your team a break: some companies are giving all staff extra days off or “mental wealth” days.
One initiative we love from Rota Cloud is to have two hour lunch breaks a couple of times a week during winter so that employees can make the most of light in the middle of the day and perhaps squeeze in time for an outdoor activity.
Of course, if you do give people time off, it’s important to reset expectations around outcomes - there’s no point telling people to take time off if they’ll then have to burn the midnight oil catching up.
7.Offer (proper) flexible working
While it’s great (and sometimes necessary) to tell people to take some time off, it’s even better to allow them to manage their own time.
Many organisations have fallen into accidental flexible working - after all what’s the point of insisting on set hours when you can’t know if people are actually working them? - but this in reality translates into “always on” and employees feeling like they can’t disconnect.
True flexible working allows people to manage their own time, meaning that they can balance work commitments with the rest of their life. This has real benefits for their mental health: almost 40% of people who work flexibly say it has benefited their mental health.
But if you decide to implement flexible working, make sure you do so properly. Both employees and managers should have a clear idea of what is expected of them and what they should be communicating.
Flexible working doesn’t just mean flexible hours. Looking to the future, this might mean offering remote working to help employees fit work around their lives, either working from home or at a nearby flexible space.
8.Be open about the future
A major stressor over this past year has been uncertainty. There’s been fear over job insecurity and worries over the pandemic. Employees haven’t known when they are returning to the office and in some cases companies have suddenly announced that they are getting rid of the office entirely with staff offered few alternatives and little consultation.
All of this can have a huge impact on staff wellbeing: when people are surprised by decisions, they are three times more likely to be unhappy in their job. Considering that one in five employees have felt in the dark during this past year, that’s a lot of unhappy people.
Of course, you may not know the answer to all of these questions but being up front with your team can do a lot to eliminate unspoken worries. Be honest about any plans in the pipeline. It’s also ok to admit if you don’t know the answer - open communication is more important than pretending to be some all-knowing person on high.
9.Encourage work/life balance
Work/life balance may sound like a fuzzy nice-to-have but it can have a profound impact on people’s mental health: working long hours causes a quarter of employees to feel depressed and a third to feel anxious.
Think about these elements that you can bake into the culture to encourage work/life balance. This may involve setting boundaries with clients or encouraging people to introduce their family to their team.
Just make sure to model work/life balance yourself - “do what I say, not what I do” isn’t going to be a compelling argument for anyone.
Another reason people are struggling to separate their work from their life at the moment is because it’s all taking place within the same four walls. It’s one of the reasons our customers come to us: they want to offer their staff a way to mentally separate work from the rest of their life - and being able to work outside the home in a nearby workspace is an ideal way of doing that.
While your employees are working from home, think of ways to encourage them to disconnect - like instituting bans on Slack messaging after a certain time or a call to signal the end of the working day.
10.Think how you can better support your employees
All of this is just a starting point. To systematically provide support, think about adopting Wellness Action Plans or doing mental health first aid training. Not only will this give you frameworks to take action on mental health, it will also help destigmatize mental health in your workplace.
It’s often the case that the onus for dealing with mental health problems is put onto individual employees, rather than companies. But with work playing such a huge part in people’s lives, companies cannot allow themselves to be willfully blind to those who are struggling - particularly when they may be a large part of why they are struggling in the first place.