The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on mental health like never before. Lockdowns forcing businesses to shut, economic downturn, remote working and personal loss have created an environment that has exacerbated previous mental health issues with, for some, levels of stress and anxiety increasing to intolerable levels. The Office for National Statistics recorded a huge initial spike in anxiety levels, which remain above pre-COVID levels. Recently published data from the Health and Safety Executive shows that levels of work-related stress had been increasing before the pandemic struck.
Business owners therefore need to be aware of the cumulative effect of COVID-19 and the increasing burden of negative mental health and take steps to promote positive mental wellbeing.
What can business owners do to help themselves and their employees?
- Firstly, don’t panic or talk yourself into a paralysis of doom and gloom
- Take stock of where you are, what signs you are seeing and what you might have done already
- Plan a way ahead over time but don’t be rigid. What 2020 has taught us is that we can’t predict with certainty what will happen next, so be flexible and respond to what is in front of you.
Provide the right resources
As a basic start, make sure everyone has the tools they need to get the job done effectively. This is critical for remote workers. Ideally, they’ll need tried and tested technology that allows secure and reliable connection to your systems and, if required, other forms of communication such as a phone, PC or laptop voice and/or video-based chat. Any ‘reasonable adjustments’ you’ve put in place for your employees in the workplace should also be applied for those working at home.
Encourage open and comfortable conversations
Talking about mental health might not be comfortable for you and your staff but being open and honest creates more confidence and reduces stigma that can be a barrier to opening up. Make it known that you want to hear about issues that people may be having and that talking about them is a strength. Model positive behaviours, genuine interest and empathy. These behaviours signal to employees what is expected of them too and how they can bring these behaviours to the workplace. It is your people who are going to make the difference.
Uncertainty can breed fear and anxiety, which can erode our mental health. Thankfully, it can be countered with the idea that uncertainty is certain. So, get everyone comfortable with this uncomfortable situation. Acknowledging that uncertainty feels unfamiliar, uncomfortable and perhaps even risky is both genuine and honest.
Tailor your support to each individual’s needs
Don’t expect everyone to be the same as you. We all have different lives, experiences and ways of coping. Your resilience is not the same as someone else’s. Be on alert for changes that indicate a decline. Sometimes this is a sort of sixth sense leaders develop. It can also be behaviour or work changes, lack of engagement, maintaining distance or a loss of sense of humour.
We can learn resilience skills from others. Talk about how you cope and get others to share their approach to coping. This too gets people talking about things without labelling them as ‘mental health’. Previous resilience and capability for coping are no predictor of the future so don’t assume that you and others will be immune to the adverse psychological effects of pressure all the time.
Adopt frequent check-ins
Check-ins are important, not only to keep track of work but also to ensure you are keeping up your contact and relationships with everyone. Beyond the catching up, try to make time for a more personal one-to-one session with each person at least once a week. Find out how they’re coping, what problems they might have and how they’re feeling. If you’ve noticed them not being themselves lately, ask about that too. Often people want someone else to open the conversation before they say how they are really feeling. Use open questions (‘How does that make you feel?’) to get them to talk freely and share their concerns. Show you understand and find out if there’s anything you can do to help. For those working remotely and living alone, there is the potential for greater vulnerability, so get to know who lives alone and ensure they have regular catch ups.
Encourage both self-reflection and collaboration
Fostering self-care is important. Encourage staff to reflect upon their strengths and vulnerabilities, and to identify and name any weak spots. By ’owning’ them, they can increase their own self-reliance. But also remember that the strength of a group is powerful. Mobilise and encourage your whole team to work together to support and look out for each other. This will help them feel more connected to each other and the business. Problems can often be solved quicker or more creatively through collaboration. ‘We are in this together and together we can get through’ is the spirit to aim for.
Reach out for additional help
Use external support if you have it and, if you don’t, then think about getting some. If you have an EAP (Employee Assistance Programme) that provides immediate mental health support, make sure everyone knows what it does, its confidentiality and how to contact it. If someone is struggling, don’t try to be a Caped Crusader and ‘fix’ them. Signpost them to help and make sure you check in afterwards to see if they’re getting the support they need.
Uplift your employees
Celebrate success rather than dwell on failure. When success happens, call it out and celebrate it to motivate and connect people. You don’t have to limit the recognition to the huge successes only. It’s often most effective to celebrate small victories. Make sure you recognise everyone’s contribution.
Now is a time for leading from the front. A time for available leadership. Leadership that is always present, fully trusting, decisive, genuine and human. Looking after your team is an integral part of looking after your business.
- Read the CBI's factsheet on employee engagement for virtual teams
- Watch the CBI's SME webinar on managing employee mental health in the changing work environment
- Watch the CBI’s webinar on mental health and wellbeing with Michael Cole Fontayn, Chairman of the Association for Financial Markets in Europe, including how to instil employee confidence during the return to work. You can also watch our webinar with Faye McGuiness from mental health charity Mind on supporting the mental health of staff during the pandemic.