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Mental health lessons from the pandemic must become part of workplace culture

It feels as though a dark cloud is lifting as the UK’s lockdown rules ease and we head towards summer.

As life starts to resemble a sense of normality, it is worth taking a moment to really recognise that the pandemic has been a truly challenging time for mental wellbeing.

Businesses have stepped up efforts, raised awareness of issues and provided critical support, enabling employees to feel more confident and able to speak up.

So, with plans underway to emerge from lockdown it’s crucial that action is taken to ensure that the mental health lessons that have come out of the last year become a permanent fixture within workplace culture.


Small actions can have a big impact

Some simple and more immediate actions in the last year have gone a long way to safeguard mental health. Protecting lunch hours and afternoons in the working week with a ‘no meetings’ policy or setting aside time for people to focus on their health has seen a positive impact in encouraging individuals to take time for themselves away from work.

A study from Harvard Business Review reinforces this idea, showing that too much time in meetings and video calls can create burnout and have a negative impact on productivity.

The key to implementing steps like these has been regular feedback from employees and putting in place measures that can help manage resource and flag pressure points. Many organisations introduced feedback mechanisms, listening exercises or surveys to understand how employees were coping. These steps can all continue post-pandemic and will help people continue to talk about wellbeing with their teams and managers.


Spotting the signs is critical

For many businesses, 2020 saw mental wellbeing support extended into new areas, including suicide prevention and domestic abuse, as the number of reported cases increased significantly during lockdown.

Initiatives and toolkits were created to help those vulnerable to these issues. Resources and policies were often developed with appropriate partner organisations – these have empowered businesses and their workforce to be able to identify those around them that might be struggling and take active steps to help them get the support they need.

Being able to spot the signs in both a remote and office working environment is vital to shifting from reactive to preventative actions. Maintaining conversations with, for example, Business in the Community, on mental health and wellbeing issues will be important for ensuring materials and initiatives are relevant, up to date and as accessible as possible.

These relationships are still hugely valuable as we emerge from lockdown, providing a forum for sharing best practice and ideas with other businesses too.


CIPD’s employer guide on domestic abuse support

The Employers Initiative for Domestic Abuse

Domestic abuse advice line for employers


Tackling stigma can’t stall

Actions to make people more aware of mental health have been in place for a number of years. However, COVID-19 has exacerbated wellbeing issues for many and prompted businesses had to to rethink their approach.

Internal communications and e-newsletters, screen savers, town halls, workshops, training sessions have all been crucial to communicating key mental health messages and helping employees better understand the challenges that exist.

Whether it’s signing up to the Mental Health at Work Commitment or developing packages that provide techniques and tips for building resilience and supporting others around you - businesses need to stay vocal about the steps they’ve been taking and show a greater desire to talk openly about mental health.


Interview with Alastair Campbell: the importance of mental health during the coronavirus pandemic

Introducing a mental health check-in tool

Could bots help to solve employee mental health problems?


Flexible working arrangements can help

Having seen some of the benefits of working from home, there’s an opportunity to embed flexible working in a way that removes the stress of choosing between professional and personal commitments, gets the best out of your people, and safeguards wellbeing in the long-term.

Whether that’s adapting working hours or allowing choice on where we work, there’s an opportunity to have an open conversation to find an arrangement that works for both for the individual and the business. If you can enable employees to deliver high-quality work, whilst looking after their wellbeing, then that benefits everyone.


Mental health and wellbeing must be ingrained

Mental health has been a longstanding issue on many business agendas, and it will remain so in a post-pandemic environment. Companies will need to look at new areas such as how they support those suffering with long COVID, especially as we learn more about the impact not just physically but psychologically too.

Ultimately, the efforts and the lessons learnt throughout the pandemic, from flexible working, communicating mental health support, educating individuals on the issues, to reminding employees to look after themselves, must be ingrained into workplace culture.

Doing so will be critical to morale and performance, and should be a priority for any responsible business.

Sarah Stanton is UK HR director, and Alan Rankin, head of safety, health and sustainability at National Grid