But there’s no guidebook for when the nation goes into lockdown due to a global pandemic. And as more people begin experiencing mental health symptoms as a result, services such as Mind have been pushed to their limits.
This has had an inevitable impact on Mind’s employees, many of whom are often trying to provide the best possible service and advice to very sensitive cases. The pressure has therefore been on for its HR director James Glover to keep morale high and workers engaged.
Like many of us, he remembers clearly the day the country went into lockdown all those months ago. “It was a day I don’t think I’ll ever lose sight of. There’s no policy or rulebook [for coronavirus], but I think out of it came engagement and people pulled together. I can’t remember a time of such organisational oneness and harmony,” he says.
“Luckily the week before we had trialled software called Message Bird which sends texts to employee mobiles, so we were able to keep in touch with people that way. On the evening [of lockdown] we sent a text out to all staff to work from home and things haven’t been the same since.”
Around 10% of Mind’s 500-strong workforce worked from home before the lockdown, with the others based in either its London or Cardiff offices. Since then, like many of the UK’s workforces, employees grappled with the pros and cons of video conferencing, working alongside disruptive family members and flatmates, and a much more flexible work routine.
‘I think you’re on mute’ and ‘can you hear me now’ has been heard thousands of times during this period, yet Glover is convinced that Zoom has really transformed the way his employees connect.
He says: “I think everyone feels a lot more involved on a Zoom call now, irrespective of whether you’re in the room or working from home, you feel so much more a part of the meeting rather than being the one person who couldn’t make it in so they’re on the end of a phone.”
And what of the dreaded ‘Zoom fatigue,’ where employees feel overwhelmed and exhausted from non-stop communication? “There’s a lot less fatigue now as it’s becoming the norm and people are getting much more used to it. Our staff are pacing meetings so they’re not in one after the other and are learning to manage those meetings more efficiently.”
Glover’s HR department also introduced guidelines to make sure meetings were no longer than 50 mins, and employees had five minutes either end of a meeting to take a break or talk socially, so they don’t feel like they are on a constant conversational merry-go-round.
On top of communication, overall employee wellbeing has been a huge challenge for Glover’s team of 13 HR professionals, particularly given his employees were grappling with taking care of the nation’s mental health on top of their own.
Glover says: “Our services have been really pressured. More and more people are accessing our online services and counselling throughout the country and the Workplace Wellbeing Index found 71% of people experienced a mental health issue in their lives, but half of those have been work-related. So, we have to ask how we work differently.
“My two colleagues working in organisational development look after our wellbeing work and were excellent during the early moments of COVID in setting up webinars for managers and the workforce. We realised just what an excellent tool they were, so we set up a listening and responding group.”
Anyone who wanted to join the webinar on a Friday morning could feed back what they were finding was working well and recommend how Mind could improve its offerings. One outcome of this was the decision to set up time around meeting to avoid Zoom fatigue and burnout. But Glover was also keen to keep furloughed employees feeling connected and part of the organisation.
He says: “We hosted webinars and feedback and listening sessions for everyone who was furloughed so they could let us know how they were coping, what they felt were finding difficult and what they were omitting about being out of the loop.
“We were able to develop tools to ensure people had what they needed so that there remained a feeling of being part of Mind and they also knew that despite not being at work, they were making their special contribution to the whole by being furloughed.”
Mind hosted online yoga and exercise groups for employees, plus furloughed workers received a weekly letter from the CEO providing them with workplace updates. It also asked managers to make sure they called furloughed employees once a week to check in and make sure they were ok.
Glover adds: “If there was one thing that came out for me in this whole thing, it is that HR deals with a very fragile commodity which is human beings. You have to really focus everyone on ‘how is this making this person feel?’ Equally that also was a huge thing to make sure that the team weren’t being overburdened with anxiousness from people.”
HR as counsellors
Glover hits on an interesting contradiction here. As HR leaders, we are often either offering up our own services to listen and understand problems or pushing business leaders to do so. Yet this can, consciously or not, have a negative impact on the mental health of the listener.
He says: “HR are not counsellors; we are not there to be everyone’s emotional help and support. Instead, we’re there to make sure every organisation has the tools it needs and ensure everyone has the emotional help they need.”
To protect against the emotional burnout of HR and the rest of the workforce, Mind has an in-house counsellor who delivers practices for anyone in need, an Employee Assistance Programme open to Mind employees and their families and it hosts plenty of activities including pilates, yoga and boxercise classes to make sure workers can get away from their workspace and take a break.
HR magazine often focuses on the principles of good leadership and passing on these lessons to managers who may not have the same people management skills.
Addressing this challenge, Glover and his team have developed a wellness action plan. Managers are asked to have at least an hour of one-to-one with each individual every six weeks to check in, and the action plan helps them explore what the signs of that individual struggling would look like. For example, it asks, ‘How will I as a manager know that you are anxious?’ and ‘how will this pan out?’
He sees the focus on wellbeing initiatives as no longer a nice to have but a programme which is good for business, echoing the sentiments of many HR leaders who have been trying to demonstrate this to the c-suite for years. “My hope is that people like the experience they have at Mind and don’t leave as often, but when they do, they’ve had a good experience.”
It is here that HR directors are often met with another dichotomy - should employees be encouraged to become more resilient or employers become more understanding?
Glover says: “The biggest challenge we now have is ‘why should I work for you?’ Our grandparents would’ve gone to an organisation at 15 or 16 and given their company their loyalty until they retired. Now it’s the other way around, and we’ve got to look at what our unique selling point will be most important.
“In this case, the charity sector is lucky because there are so many individuals who want to make a difference and are keen to be more than a bottom line number that actually we’re able to add to that value, and be part of a great cause to help the mental health of the country. But we have to help our staff, too.”
As our cover story this month explores, reintegrating the workforce after the furlough scheme ends will be a huge challenge for HR, with no obvious answers.
The end of furlough
After having already welcomed some members of staff back, Glover is planning a soft approach to restarting work for the rest of the team, whether that’s in the workplace or more likely at home. Employees will be encouraged to log on and catchup with their email over the first week, and by the second week will be meeting up with managers and some of the team.
“The HR team, like many others in the company, has been meeting up to have lunch online where we natter about life and anything work-related is banned,” he says, but Glover acknowledges there will certainly been teething problems with this workforce reintegration.
He says: “We haven’t trod the path of those who have been off the longest. Those who have been coming back slowly have achieved it very well and haven’t voiced anything that’s been particularly difficult, but I know it has been hard for those who had children especially.”
Surprisingly, the involvement of children within work hours has actually helped teams bond. “We all got interested in each other’s children and our meetings flowed better with the kids around, we all became so much more tolerant of each other as we were seeing more of people’s lives. It’s been nice to see the soft element of life which has been one of the benefits of life and the lockdown - the human experience.”
And getting to know employer’s families and personal circumstances has also enabled Glover to become a better HR professional. He says: “One of the lightbulb moments for me was hearing about a mother with two children under five living in London without a garden. If anything could impact mental health, that certainly could, so it got me thinking of how we can help these employees balance life and work.”
Glover was able to experiment with the flexible furlough option to offer part time work to these employees, something he will offer more consideration to in the future. He says: “It was a useful tool as we were able to say how we can balance this and make sure people didn’t lose out financially, but equally that Mind could enable its people to work part time.”
As the country faces a potential second peak of the virus, plus living alongside it for many months to come, what has Glover learnt throughout this process? “I’m teaching the team more and more to put yourself in that person’s shoes.
"You need to get your people to know the organisation cares about them, are grateful for what they do and help them grow. We are not machines - and we have to let life happen. Often we can be at work and there’s a whole load of life going on outside of it.”
The full piece of the above appears in the September/October 2020 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.
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