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How to support the mental health of your employees

Updated: May 15, 2020

"The role of a leader in creating a mentally healthy workplace is to promote awareness, and importantly, to promote a culture that allows people to take the steps they need to stay mentally healthy."

Dr Andrew Wilson, Medibank

A recent survey by Qualtrics and SAP in March and April this year found that 75% of people felt more socially isolated, 67% said they had higher stress, 57% reported greater anxiety and 53% said they were more emotionally exhausted.[1]

The most common mental health problems worldwide are depression and anxiety and it is not unlikely that during this pandemic, at least one of your employees will be suffering from one, if not both. According the WHO, risks to mental health include:

· ‘inadequate health and safety policies; 

· poor communication and management practices;

· limited participation in decision-making or low control over one’s area of work;

· low levels of support for employees;

· inflexible working hours; and

· unclear tasks or organizational objectives.’

There may also be risks associated with the content of the job such as high demand or even, for some people, too low a demand. Importantly for these times, the WHO also notes that risks can be increased when there is a lack of team cohesion or social support.

It is clear then that employers have the opportunity to reduce the risk of poor mental health for their employees and that that role has never been more relevant. Some of the strategies identified by the WHO to create a healthy workplace include:

· ‘Organisational practices that support a healthy work-life balance

· Informing staff that support is available

· Involving employees in decision-making, conveying a feeling of control and participation.’

Every day this week, I’ll share some strategies that employers can take to address each of these.

Involving employees in decision-making

Support risk taking. The first step to this is to minimise any feelings of risk your employees may feel by stepping up. That means that YOU have to get comfortable with things not always being done how you want them, with results that aren’t necessarily what you want, in a timeframe that may not be optimal for you personally. It means accepting that sometimes the decisions may be wrong. Sometimes it may even not be the right decision for business, not just not the right one you had envisaged. But without that opportunity to grow, your employees won’t. Allowing mistakes to happen encourages faster growth, development and enhances control and participation.

Up your communications game. Empowerment cannot exist without a really solid communications structure. Communication needs to be consistent and 2-way. That means you need to really listen to what your staff are telling you. Encourage them to submit ideas and have total transparency about where ideas go, what happens to them and reward staff who have ideas taken forward.

Support initiative in goal setting. Your employees may come up with ideas for their goals that surprise you. You can still guide employees to be bolder and to consider team/unit/company goals and strategy but give them the opportunity to set goals first. Have you asked your employees to set goals during this time?

Support learning even if it doesn’t seem to directly benefit your business. Google allow employees to spend 20% of their time working on their own ideas, which can lead to not only a sense of satisfaction and zest, but amazing ideas for the business too. (Google Maps, anyone?)

Establish a Shadow Board. Consider a Shadow Board of non-executive junior employees that work with senior executives. While a relatively new concept to some (i.e. me), a quick google of Shadow Boards Business or Mirror Boards throws up articles going back 4 or 5 years and most will reference Gucci, who credit its shadow board of Millennials with its sales growth of 136% between 2014 to 2018. (In the same time frame, Prada’s sales dropped by 11.5%).[2] Engaging Gen Zers or Millennials in these Boards gives organisations the opportunity to stay fresh, keep talent and develop their succession planning. How best to create a shadow board? Allow anyone to apply. You may be surprised by the applications and hidden talents. It is also more likely to be more diverse than just selecting from your pool of known high potentials. There’s nothing to stop those potentials applying, but by opening up the process you may see others that outperform them. Ensure the CEO is on board. A Shadow Board with no power or influence will rapidly be seen as irrelevant as ‘Millennial’ perks like a pool table. Keep assessing and refining how the Board goes and what its remit is. Grow a good one and your organisation will be in much better shape to minimise disruption and the control given to employees will enhance their job satisfaction and overall wellbeing.

Informing staff that support is available

Firstly, you need to know what support is available yourself. Do you have a mental health and wellbeing policy and program? When was it last refreshed? Is it still current? How do you ensure staff are aware of this? If you haven’t already reminded staff of the program since the start of the pandemic, now is a great time to!

I’ve compiled some great resources for you to look through and see what is useful to communicate to your staff. The first three here are from what used to be a great site called Mood Juice. It seems to have undergone a transformation into a site accessible through the NHS and here are the 3 guides I think are most likely to be relevant right now; anxiety, depression and sleep problems. None of this information will replace the necessity of seeking appropriate therapeutic diagnosis and help for any mental health problem, but for these guides are ideal for those wanting to understand more about the issue and learn some strategies to help themselves. I would also recommend these for anyone who is a line manager unfamiliar with these issues, that has staff dealing with them. Sometimes the very best thing that someone needs is for their line management to understand what the issue is.

For a really impressive range of resources for employers, employees, managers and – an often-forgotten group – small business owners, visit headsup. There’s a lot of information on this site and it is all very readable and easy to access.

For an effective toolkit, look no further. You don’t have to sign up to complete it but if you do you can save it.

Organisational practices that support a healthy work-life balance

Check in. It feels really awkward to some people to ask about mental health. So imagine how awkward people may find it to broach that subject with a manager. Statements such as ‘I appreciate that it is a very strange time for all of us and I wanted to check in and see if there is anything you need’ open to the door to conversations about mental health without being blunt.

If you have concerns about someone in particular, raise it in a supportive manner. E.g. ‘You haven’t seemed yourself lately and I was wondering if I could help.’

Be prepared to do this yourself. You know your staff and they know you. Employees do not necessarily want to have this discussion with a HR person rather than someone they speak to more frequently.

If someone does disclose a mental health problem, listen. Many people who have suffered with mental health problems will tell you that what they most benefitted from were people who listened and didn’t try to ‘fix’ them. Please don’t suggest that a mental health problem could be solved by:

Getting outside more

Being positive

Eating/drinking random supplements

Doing that thing that your cousin Bob recommended because it cured his depression.

Whilst this advice is well-meaning, it doesn’t take into account how the person with the issue is actually feeling. Sometimes a mental health problem can make getting out of bed seem impossible. It really isn’t a case of ‘mind over matter’. Just listen, non-judgementally and be there. Unless you are trained, you’re not a mental health practitioner and nobody expects you to be. Listen and then pass on information about the help available to them from your organisation. Don’t just disappear and hope that has ‘solved’ it. Keep checking in.

To keep a healthy work-life balance and minimise the risk of work being an additional stressor, allow employees to work whatever hours work for them. Be cautious about people working very long hours. Not only does it undermine their rest and recovery, it’s not long before it undermines their effectiveness. Ensure that anyone in a managerial position makes it clear that just because they work irregular hours doesn’t mean that they expect emails to be answered. Something as simple as:

‘I’m currently working odd hours due to home schooling so you may receive emails out of regular hours. Just because I am working at this time doesn’t mean I expect you to! Please only reply in your routine hours.’ Even better, if you have a general set of hours that can be summed up in a line or two (like ‘I know work 7-9am and 3-10pm’) add that. Encourage people to work to their best hours by leading by example. Check if staff are having issues with other managers expecting work to be done at all hours of the day. Your staff need their time off now more than ever.

If it is possible, rather than focus on hours at all, encourage a focus on productivity. Not only will this drive down presenteeism (where people are present but not productive), it also means you are more likely to get high quality output.

Review workloads. Times have changed hugely since the beginning of the year, but has the workshare been changed? Do you have some teams sat with little to do and others with more? How can you even things out? Are your deadlines still necessary? Having to work long hours to finish a task for a deadline that you know is meaningless does not promote wellbeing.

Encourage people to have regular breaks. This is a hard one for right now. Without people popping by the desk for coffee or walking out to get lunch, conscientious employees can be in danger of not taking breaks and leg stretches. Encourage small bursts of activity in the day like a walk around the block by getting employees to join in virtual challenges from the likes of Strava and FitBit.

Can you afford to give you staff more time off? If your staff aren’t furloughed, but work is a bit thinner than usual, why not give them more paid time off? And instead of determining how that time off looks, why not ask them? (E.g. shorter days, a block, a 9 day fortnight?)

If your employees are furloughed right now, still keep in touch. Offer support and a sense of community by still having online challenges, games, online skill share or virtual coffee mornings. Create games using Canva’s Self-care bingo templates or their workout challenge templates. Give responsibility for coming up with fun things that people genuinely want to engage with to different teams. This time could be an incredibly bonding experience for some, engendering a far deeper sense of team spirit than any away day could conjure.

Give as much certainty as possible. Humans hate uncertainty and it can really exacerbate even mild anxiety. Communicate what you know and be precise about what you don’t know. By not communicating what is unknown (e.g. we still don’t know what is happening with the contract in Dorset and we don’t expect to find this out for the foreseeable future. I am contacting their CEO every month to see if the situation has changed. When I hear anything definite, I will let all teams know’ stops people imagining that you don’t know and you don’t want to communicate the bad news. It reassures people that you know what is happening, you are taking action and that you are passing on the information you have.

[1] Cited in [2]

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