Is a mental health pandemic in the workplace on the horizon?

Employers should adopt a preventative rather than a reactive approach in their duty of care to their staff, says Owen O’Kane
Is a mental health pandemic in the workplace on the horizon?

The Covid pandemic has seen an increasing number of people reporting mental health issues at work. All the key workforce studies in the UK and internationally report that employees are struggling significantly more with anxiety and mood. Trauma symptoms are also being reported with those working in frontline healthcare roles. Of course, this impacts detrimentally on motivation, performance and absenteeism. which comes at a high cost for organisations.

Undoubtedly, we are only beginning to see a small percentage of the impact. I am convinced a mental health pandemic in the workplace is on its way (alongside many other groups of our population). Now is the time to prepare for this. It’s time to adapt a preventative approach, rather than a reactive one. In my experience of working with companies, when it’s left too late, the consequences are great.

What’s causing the problems?

I work with corporate organisations globally delivering talks and workshops on how to cope better with stress and anxiety at work. In normal times I regularly heard issues with workload, deadlines, targets, toxic cultures, discrimination and work/life balance. I continue to hear these issues but with many additional residual matters linked to the pandemic. Employees are struggling more than I’ve ever witnessed and this is backed up by Forbes, which reports that 69 per cent of those working from home are finding it more stressful and reporting signs of burnout. 
 
Employee’s bedrooms, kitchens and garden sheds have fast become the new office space. Of course, the situation is aggravated with school closures leaving many people juggling work, childcare and everyday chores all at the same time. But the problem runs deeper than this. Many employees are feeling isolated, disconnected and overwhelmed with the sheer volume of uncertainty, economic challenges and gloomy headlines. If they are unsupported, mental wellness will inevitably be compromised. Every employer has a duty of care to recognise this and respond accordingly.
  

What can HR teams do?

 
I have five tips that will be useful for any organisation regardless of workforce demographics or roles:
 
  • Know the signs of a struggling employee

I can’t emphasise how important this is. Most people who are struggling will continue to plough on until they are exhausted. If you know some of the signs to look out for, you can step in and offer support in a compassionate non-judgemental manner. Within this I want to encourage HR managers to also reach out for support if they’re having a tough time. We are all human. Here is what I tend to see in workplaces:
  • Changes in mood
  • Anxious thinking
  • Poor sleep
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Performance or attendance issues
  • Changes in appearance
  • Sometimes withdrawn
  • More defensive or argumentative
  • Something about the person doesn’t ‘seem right’
 
  • Ask ‘how are you?’ in a way that matters 

It’s not enough to know what you are looking out for, you also need to ask employees how they are. I’m not convinced that questionnaires or surveys are the most effective means of doing this. I think many employees view such tools cynically as a corporate ‘tick box’. Instead, find a way of connecting with your workforce and create an open space that allows them to share comfortably how they really are. Equally important is asking what they need.
 
  • Prepare for a crisis

Most organisations have crisis action plans in the event of a disaster or critical incident. Review these policies now and work on the assumption you will need a policy for the Covid mental health impact.
 
  • Offer the right support

My hunch is that whatever mental wellness support you have on offer now, it won’t be adequate for your employees’ needs. Review and explore what additional resources or finances might be needed. Offer talks, workshops and support groups, and be sure to use trained experts in the area of mental health who have credibility and professionalism beyond a weekend workshop. This area is delicate and needs expert guidance. Quick fixes will create more problems in the long run.
 
  • Take it to the top

It’s important that directors, shareholders, chief executives – basically anyone in power – realises the importance of mental wellness, especially now. Shout loudly and make people in authority listen to the urgency and the gravity of this situation. The more support you have, the easier it will be to implement changes.
A healthy employee creates a healthy workplace. Health is a foundation of sustainability and success.
 
Owen O’Kane is a psychotherapist, former NHS clinical lead, author and mental health speaker.

This article was originally published on People Management Magazine. View the original article here.
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