We’re just over one year on from the first case of COVID-19 in the UK. Taking aside the obvious impact on the nation’s public health, the pandemic has also had a significant impact on our mental health. In particular, the third lockdown is taking a mental health crisis and turning it into a pandemic of its own. Resilience is low, fatigue is high.
Mental health challenges do not discriminate, and stress, anxiety and uncertainty are affecting everyone, regardless of their profession, generation, or geography – as has been the case throughout the pandemic. As a result, employers are facing increasing calls to do more to protect the mental health of their workforces over the tough winter months. We spoke to a range of CBI members to understand what they’ve learnt over the past year, and give you some practical ideas you can take away and implement in your business.
What businesses are doing now – the key trends
Different approaches for different lockdowns
With the UK reaching the end of a third national lockdown, many are struggling more than ever.
For example, many staff reported the winter conditions made the third lockdown much tougher than the first or second. But things have also got a lot harder for working parents, who simply muddled through the first lockdown, but now feel a lot more pressure – because the volume of work coming out of schools is greater, and they’re having to juggle that alongside work. So it’s crucial employers ensure they’re supporting them.
Many are also reported that press coverage on new variants is adding to the anxiety they feel – as well as concerns about the ongoing nature of the pandemic and when life will be able to ‘go back to normal’.
So clearly, employers need to prioritise certain needs as the pandemic continues to impact people. For example, you could discourage internal meetings around lunchtime each day, so people can get outside in daylight.
One size doesn’t fit all
One of the challenges often levelled at businesses when it comes to their mental health action plans is that a one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t work. Understandably, towards the start of the pandemic, businesses were acting quickly to put support in place – but leading businesses believe the best support will come from a tailored approach.
The differing needs of staff must be considered. Understanding the demographics of your workforce can help find solutions that support their individual needs. Working parents and carers, for example, face different challenges than other employees. Everyone is going through a different situation, so their mental health needs are different.
Employers should also consider where different groups seek information to provide the information needed – such as the intranet, staff meetings, instant messaging platforms, social media, etc.
Virtual mental health counselling and the availability of mental health apps offer convenient and easily accessible support, particularly for younger employee groups accustomed to using their smartphones for everything.
Initiatives should be grass-roots led, but sponsored by senior leadership
When imposed in a top-down way, mental health initiatives don’t tend to work as well, sometimes leading to questions around authenticity. Top-down may have been what was needed right at the start of the pandemic, with everyone under pressure, uncertainty reigning and support needed quickly – but going forwards, organisations should aspire to mental health initiatives that have buy-in across the whole organisation.
The business leaders we spoke to suggested the most powerful ways for business leaders to approach this issue is to encourage staff to open up about their own mental health. As a leader, showing your vulnerability and being open about your own mental health challenges can encourage others to do so.
When staff are open about what harms and helps their mental health, they can suggest initiatives which will work for them. That doesn’t mean every initiative must be adopted, but if you’re giving staff agency in their own situations, you can’t go far wrong. Just ensure your organisation has a senior sponsor, so mental health stays at the top of the boardroom agenda.
The role of Mental Health First Aiders
As the pandemic rolled on beyond anyone’s expectations, businesses have been able to turn their attention not just to the immediate actions need to support mental health, but long-term strategies.
Mental Health First Aiders (MHFAs) are not a new concept – indeed, the first MHFA course originated in Australia 21 years ago. But the idea has exploded in popularity in recent years, with many businesses across the UK training staff to become MHFAs. Fundamentally, the concept is based on the premise of physical first aid – in that it furnishes you with basic skills to keep someone alive until the initial assistance is provided, or a qualified medical professional gets involved.
No matter your sector or industry, the pandemic will be impacting the mental health and wellbeing of your people. So, having designated MHFAs embedded in your workforce is a fantastic way of ensuring your organisation looks after your employees’ mental health. Many of the businesses we spoke to have either begun adopting a programme of training MHFAs, or have significantly boosted their numbers of trained staff.
A word of caution, however. MHFAs have tangibly saved lives this year. And naturally, demand for their help is going up. But businesses must remember that MHFAs are themselves staff who may have their own mental health problems, so businesses must ensure they don’t get overwhelmed.
‘Mental fitness’ and the importance of language
The business leaders we asked also highlighted how their organisations are promoting the idea of ‘mental fitness’ – they felt this was critical given people’s resilience and morale dropping, particularly over the winter months.
Just as we can improve our physical health by moving and exercising our bodies, we can improve our mental health by strengthening our minds. You can suggest mental exercises that employees can add to everyday life, such as reading, daydreaming, positive affirmation, playing certain games such as Sudoku, and in many other ways.
In organisations where wellbeing and mental fitness programmes have been instigated, they’ve seen significant increases in measures of wellness and significant decreases in days lost through sickness.
One of the other key elements here is that language matters when talking about mental health. Generations of people have grown up in societies that have used discriminatory language when describing mental health conditions. Many would argue that it is practice and not language that matters, but words can be a motivator for making discrimination acceptable, and can contribute to the stigma that makes many feel like they can’t or shouldn’t talk about their mental health openly.
Organisations must foster an environment where inclusive language is used, and employees feel able to be open about the challenges they face.
Practical actions your business can consider
Here are some of the other practical actions CBI members are taking – maybe you’ll find them useful in your own business:
- Many are discouraging internal meetings over lunch
- A manufacturing firm in the North East champions ‘whinge sessions’ on Friday afternoons, where staff are encouraged to ‘clear their chests’ before the weekend
- A utility company in the North East uses multi-sensory support, including Spotify playlists, audiobooks, and photo galleries of colleagues to encourage greater social connection
- A recruitment consultancy in the East Midlands gives staff mental health MOTs
- A bank in the East Midlands encourages ‘walking one-to-ones’, where locally-based employees meet up and go for a walk together
- A retail business in the North West has ‘Free-from Fridays’ – Fridays without any meetings or calls.