HR and business leaders must acknowledge mental health taboo

The year 2020 will be one to remember, but not through the lenses of rose tinted glasses. Some of the biggest events (and disasters) have had global repercussions, not the least to the general wellbeing of every individual.

Since initial lockdown, we’ve examined and benchmarked the emotional, physical, and financial wellbeing of UK employees and business leaders to discover that 73% felt that coronavirus negatively impacted their mental health.

Increased loneliness resulting from remote working and greater financial woes are exacerbating current daily anxieties.

Further reading

Mental health stigma remains in the workplace despite campaigns

Mental health first aiders in the workplace - are they effective?

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

Continuing in line with company guidance to work from home where possible in the now coldest, darkest months of the year, organisations of all kinds will be considering more strategic ways in which to weather the uncertainty and ‘keep the lights on’.

Employee wellbeing and the preservation of a positive work culture throughout adversity must be central to such a strategy, not least because it’s what energises productivity. It’s what makes work engaging. It’s what makes getting up in the morning and facing the monotony of a full working day within the same walls in which one eats, sleeps and relaxes, more bearable.

Organisations that previously refuted the idea of flexible, hybrid work practices for employees have had no choice but to partake in what has been dubbed the ‘biggest work from home experiment’.

Many have made it work; a few have gone as far as doing away with a physical office completely; and many are considering adopting a more permanent flexible work environment because they have seen the benefits manifested in engagement and productivity.

One thing we cannot ignore however is how this has also impacted on employee loneliness. This is a real issue that both HR and business leaders need to deal with urgently. Last year, the World Economic Forum reported that loneliness is a global epidemic afflicting not just the old but, increasingly, the young.

Our own wellbeing report reveals that over the past few months 36% of employees felt less connected to their colleagues and 32% felt lonelier than ever before. Yet there is a clear disconnect between what employees feel and what their employers believe.

Only 20% of bosses (compared with 45% of employees) believe that maintaining emotional wellbeing is a significant challenge that must be addressed.

How are employers supposed to support their workforce if they won’t even acknowledge there’s a problem in the first place? Mental health for too long has been taboo. But in the age of COVID, employers have a care of duty to attend to this issue; not to deny or to neglect it – especially as we enter another lockdown.

We need to do all we can to make people feel seen and connected within the business and with their colleagues in general. We might not be able to connect in the physical world but we must utilise online tools to forge a good ‘second best’.

Bi-weekly digital tea breaks or lunches via Zoom where employees get to chat about anything but work and eat food from Deliveroo paid for by the company is how one creative agency has maintained a sense of connectedness.

Holding weekly all-hands ‘shout-outs’ provide a means of sharing information and ideas company-wide, encourages cross-organisational support and celebrates wins – small or otherwise.

Managers must regularly interact with every direct report and employees must make themselves memorable professionally (providing updates, being an active member in meetings) as well as personally (attending virtual social activities, and checking-in on others).

With work and private life colliding, digital boundaries also need to be drawn; revisit those internal communication guidelines and reinforce digital boundaries. Refrain from being like Elon Musk, who purportedly called an all-hands meeting at 1am on a Sunday.

In our own organisation, as daylight becomes a scarce resource, we’re encouraging managers to allow for extended lunch breaks or later starts so that employees can go outside for a walk, a run, or even just sit outdoors with a coffee.

These tactics might not work for every organisation. But these are examples of how small changes can be implemented immediately to address an urgent issue, benefiting work culture and employee wellbeing without any cost to the business.

HR and business leaders are now better equipped to deal with the challenges we’re facing. We may need to think of ways to refresh some of our ideas to maintain workplace morale, but it doesn’t entail reinventing the wheel.

The best result of 2020 is more awareness of an individual’s wellbeing – as an HR industry, let’s take advantage of this and ride the momentum.

Mona Akiki, head of people, Perkbox.