· 7 min read · Features

Q&A with Ama Afrifa-Tchie, Mental Health First Aid's head of people, wellbeing and equity

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Head of people, wellbeing and equity at Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England Ama Afrifa-Tchie talks to HR magazine editor Jo Gallacher about how HR can protect mental wellbeing as the country opens up again.

What is the state of the nation’s mental health at the moment?

Research has shown more than two-thirds of adults in the UK (69%) report feeling somewhat or very worried about the effect COVID-19 is having on their life. The most common issues affecting wellbeing are worries about the future (63%), feeling stressed or anxious (56%), and feeling bored (49%). It is clear that people need mental health support now more than ever.

The Centre for Mental Health predict that 8.5 million more adults will need mental health support as a result of COVID-19, and so it is imperative that employers, and HR teams in particular, play their part in creating a culture of care.

 

How has COVID-19 impacted employee mental health and what should HR look out for?

We all have mental health just as we have physical health, but it can seem more difficult to spot the signs of mental ill health, especially while many people continue to work remotely. It’s even more important to regularly check in on colleagues and get to know your team so you can identify if some appears to be struggling.

One of the first signs of mental ill health may be changes in the person’s behaviour. Look out for these signs that an employee or colleague may need more support:

  • Increased errors, missing deadlines or forgetting tasks
  • Taking on too much work or volunteering for every new project
  • An employee who is normally punctual arriving late
  • Working too many hours: first in, last out, sending emails out of hours or while on leave
  • Increased sickness absence
  • Negative changes to ways of working or socialising with colleagues

Do you think the pandemic has altered how we feel about mental health?

No-one has been untouched by the pandemic – among a range of pressures it has created financial uncertainty, isolation, bereavement, job loss, a rise in domestic abuse and exacerbated existing inequalities. All of this has taken a huge toll on our collective mental health.

More people than ever seem to be waking up to the importance of mental health on our overall health and wellbeing. Record numbers of children and adults sought NHS help last year for problems such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders, or because they ended up in a mental health crisis. The conversation around mental health is being normalised but the stigma still remains in some parts of society and in some workplaces.

 

Is there still a stigma around taking medication for mental health conditions? If so, how and should an employer offer guidance in this area?

Some people with mental ill health will take medication just at those with a physical condition would. Unfortunately, there does remain a particular stigma around taking certain types of psychiatric medicine. Although there has been much more discussion on the conversation around mental health there is still work to do.

While the stigma remains, it will continue to prevent people from actively seeking the mental health care and support they need and from disclosing it to their employer. Workplaces need to create an open culture that makes it clear employees will be listened to without judgement and supported if they experience a mental health issue at work.

 

How can HR help to alleviate fears over office returns?

Some may be looking forward to getting back into the office yet many will feel uncertain after the events of the past year. Everyone will feel differently; some may thrive, while some may not be in a psychologically safe environment.

HR need to work with senior leaders to evaluate the best ways of working for their organisation and their people. Remote, hybrid or flexible working look set to continue for many. It’s important to engage with staff teams about what this looks like, so people feel listened to. We need to create workplaces where people can open up and discuss their concerns, ask for support and feel empowered to bring their whole selves to work if they want to.

Employers should also implement a re-induction process for staff who are returning to the office to help them settle back in and ensure that their queries and concerns are answered. It is also vital to clearly communicate health and safety protocols, as some employees may feel worried about the risk of infection.

 


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Now we have seen an increase in hybrid working, will we see an end to presenteeism?

Flexible and hybrid working arrangements can help employees to better plan their time and feel confident that they can adjust their working hours if responsibilities change. It is important that employers engage, consult and review with staff every step of the way, making the framework for flexible working clear, and talk to individuals about what works best for them to ease any anxieties or concerns.

As lockdown measures begin to ease, employers must continue to demonstrate trust in their teams and offer flexible working arrangements where possible, to retain the best talent and support wellbeing.

Hybrid working alone will not put an end to presenteeism. To boost productivity, employers should take a holistic approach to employee mental health. Workplaces need to ensure that people are clear on their role and its purpose, and feel valued and supported.

 

How involved should an employer be in an employee’s mental health?

Over the past year many workplaces have placed greater emphasis, and taken action, on mental health and wellbeing. There has been so much excellent and innovative work promoting wellbeing that we can, and should, be celebrating.  

There are a number of things employers can and should be doing to support employee mental health. Regular, proactive wellbeing check-ins, should be part and parcel of line management and managers need to know where to signpost people if they need further support.

With working from home set to become a more permanent fixture of working life a culture of boundary setting, and acknowledging the temptation to be ‘always on’, must come from the top. We must also be open and honest in conversations about pressures and influences where stressors cannot be removed, as well as the unknowns. 

 

Despite lots of brilliant work in the mental health space, why do some employees not feel willing to take a sick day for their mental health?

Our recent research at Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England from over 2,000 employees found stark differences in the experiences of employees. While some employers have upped their game on mental health during COVID-19, some are lagging behind - although a third (32%) of employees say mental health and wellbeing support improved, many organisations are still falling short.

The findings also revealed that during the pandemic, one in four (25%) employees say they’ve had no wellbeing check-ins from their workplace and almost a third (29%) of workers never discuss mental health in meetings with their line manager.

In this type of environment, where discussing mental health is not the norm, some employees feel unable to disclose a mental health issue or cite mental health as the real reason for taking a sick day.

 

What can HR do to combat this?

Employees need to feel psychologically safe in their workplace environment and be offered flexibility, safety, and freedom to speak openly about any mental health issues they are facing. Only when people feel empowered to bring their whole selves to work, can they perform at their optimum, without fear of judgement or penalty.

Employers can help by driving a positive transformation in workplace mental health and performance through bringing together diversity and inclusion with health and wellbeing. A whole organisation approach is needed to support and protect the mental health and wellbeing of employees. Encouraging and demonstrating good self-care practices, and offering flexible working arrangements are good places for employers to start.

Regular wellbeing catch-ups with colleagues are a crucial way to support people’s mental health, especially during the pandemic and while we all continue to work remotely. The My Whole Self MOT is a simple, free tool to help employees check in on their own and others’ mental health and wellbeing. Employers can share the MOT with teams, and line managers can use the questions outlined to help start a conversation about mental health during one-to-one sessions.

 

We often hear about the stigma moving away from mental health conditions, but would you say some are more ‘palatable’ than others? (I.e. discussions around anxiety and depression vs more complex mental health issues)

Although there is still stigma surrounding mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression, more and more people, including high-profile celebrities, have started opening up about their lived experience of these conditions. Just recently TV and radio broadcaster Roman Kemp revealed he has lived experience of depression and has been taking anti-depressants for 12 years. With more people opening up about their lived experience of mental ill health, the way society understands and perceives these conditions has shifted for the better.  

However, there are so many different mental health conditions from bipolar affective disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder to schizophrenia, psychosis and eating disorders to name a few. Many of these conditions still carry a lot of stigma and the public’s education and understanding of these more complex conditions is still low.

Mental health first aiders are trained to identify the signs and symptoms for a range of mental health conditions from anxiety and depression to schizophrenia and psychosis. It starts with better awareness and employers should seek to improve their employees’ understanding of these conditions and make sure everyone knows where they can seek support if they are concerned about their own mental health of the mental health of someone else.

 

Nature is this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week theme. Why has this been so essential for employees over the last 12 months?

Research from the Mental Health Foundation shows that, during lockdown, nature has played a vital role in supporting people’s mental health. Last summer it found that 45% of people reported that being in green space had been vital for our mental health.

Being in nature is known to be an effective way of tackling mental health issues and in protecting our wellbeing. Whether it’s stopping to listen to birdsong, looking after a house plant, or taking a walk in the local park – millions of us have turned to nature to help through COVID-19. These are positive habits we should encourage people to continue post-pandemic too.

This piece forms part of HR magazine's special bulletin on Mental Health Awareness Week. Sign up to make sure you don't miss any future bulletins.