10 practical ways to support employees’ mental health and wellbeing during COVID-19

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10 practical ways to support employees’ mental health and wellbeing during COVID-19

Coronavirus has taken a significant toll on people’s wellbeing. It seems that each week, new statistics are emerging that highlight the extent of the nation’s ‘mental health crisis’.

With work a major cause of stress – particularly now, with the upheaval and uncertainty caused by the pandemic – employers are naturally concerned about the strain all of this is having on their staff, and keen to find ways to support them until some semblance of normality returns.

First, let’s start with the ‘why?’

You probably already know the headline statistic: one in four of us are likely to experience mental health problems each year.

In fact, according to the HSE, stress, depression and anxiety is the number one cause of occupational ill health and has been since 2016/17, resulting in 17.9 million days lost in 2019/20. It is estimated that the total annual cost of mental health problems at work is almost £35 billion, while presenteeism is said to cost the UK economy over 15 billion each year.

These statistics don’t account for the spikes we are likely to see during situations like a pandemic, and the Centre for Mental Health has recently reported that nearly one-fifth of the population will need mental health support as a direct consequence of COVID-19. In October 2020, the World Health Organisation reported that COVID-19 “has disrupted or halted critical mental health services in 93% of countries worldwide while the demand for mental health is increasing”.

Such alarming figures help to put the importance of mental health and wellbeing into perspective and show that it is very much a business issue.

So, what can employers do?

Our 10 Ways to Wellbeing

Step 1: Get the base right

Start by asking yourself the following question:

  • Do people feel safe? If they can work from home, then the answer is probably yes. If not, then given the rising case numbers, the answer may be no. Have you conducted risk assessments and, where possible, removed or reduced any risks? Have you communicated this to employees? Do people have the PPE they need to work safely? All of these things will contribute towards reassuring employees, reducing stressful situations and demonstrating genuine concern for their wellbeing
  • Do they have the right equipment? We can all do without certain things in the short-term. However, as homeworking continues, the right chair, desk, phone and equipment becomes increasingly important. People may have been happy to work off a laptop for the first few weeks, but a full-size keyboard and mouse is likely to be much more efficient. Discomfort and feeling restricted by technology can be a cause of stress, so find out what people need to work effectively.
  • Do they have the right equipment? We can all do without certain things in the short-term. However, as homeworking continues, the right chair, desk, phone and equipment becomes increasingly important. People may have been happy to work off a laptop for the first few weeks, but a full-size keyboard and mouse is likely to be much more efficient. Discomfort and feeling restricted by technology can be a cause of stress, so find out what people need to work effectively.
  • Do people feel safe? If they can work from home, then the answer is probably yes. If not, then given the rising case numbers, the answer may be no. Have you conducted risk assessments and, where possible, removed or reduced any risks? Have you communicated this to employees? Do people have the PPE they need to work safely? All of these things will contribute towards reassuring employees, reducing stressful situations and demonstrating genuine concern for their wellbeing

Step 2: Communicate, communicate, communicate

  • Ensure everyone has clear lines of communication.
  • Instead of ‘Are you okay?’, ask ‘How are you?’
  • Remember that employees are generally happy to go to their line manager with work queries, but wellbeing may be different – consider assigning ‘buddies’ (a peer or friend to whom they can vent their frustrations and speak openly, and who can feed back if things look more serious).

In addition:

  • For more serious issues, you may have access to an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), wellbeing champions or mental health first aiders that can offer support.
  • Consider who is best placed to deal with these types of issues in your organisation.
  • Give reassurance when you can, and act fast when there’s uncertainty, such as around government announcements. Be clear with your communication, even if it’s just a holding message.
  • Remember, people like routine, especially during times of change. Consider setting up regular communications, such as morning catch-ups, end of the day round-ups or Friday updates. These help everyone feel informed.
  • Share good news stories (business related or otherwise) as a break from COVID updates and to give a sense of normality.
  • Create a feedback mechanism: surveys, informal chats, check-in surveys. These are simple to se up and can help you to understand the general mood, as well as provide ideas for future initiatives.

Step 3: Use what you’ve got

Review what you have already that might help your colleagues. This might include:

  • Existing benefits such as healthcare, EAP or counselling service;
  • Things you may be able to access via any existing memberships (professional bodies often have Wellbeing Support);
  • People in your organisation with hidden talents or passions that might help you support others (within the realms of confidentiality, you may have people who would be willing to run events or support others in wellbeing activities);
  • Access to talking treatments, creative therapies or alternative therapies (this can be anything from counselling and CBT to music, painting, meditation and yoga – a lot of which is available online); and/or
  • Any other free resources you can access – have a look at what’s available in your area.

Step 4: Support for support

It’s a good idea to appoint ‘supporters’ – this may be a line manager, buddy, colleague, mental health champion or mental health first aider, to name a few. What’s important is that they are the right person for the job – not all line managers make for good listeners!

Their role isn’t to fix things or offer advice (unless it is within their power to do so); it is to listen, understand, empathise and sign-post or escalate if need be.

If these ‘supporters’ are dealing with mental health problems for a number of individuals, it is likely that they too will need an outlet. This could include an advice line where they can talk directly to a mental health professional, counselling or just someone to tell if things aren’t going well.

You will need to check in regularly with your ‘supporters’ to ensure they feel supported and that they are not being affected in a negative way.

Their support should be confidential. Guidelines need to be drawn so that these individuals understand at what point they should involve a mental health expert or escalate the problem within the organisation.

To move forward or overcome a mental health issue, an individual will need to be ‘ready’ for change – so the role of the supporter is to respect where the individual is in the cycle – nudge, don’t push.

Step 5: Start the conversation

If you suspect someone may be struggling, have an open, honest and practical conversation.

Do:

  • Listen and understand. Ask how their mental health impacts their work and what adjustments can be made to help them.
  • Focus on the person, not the problem (don’t assume that any issue will affect performance).
  • Be aware of your questioning style and adapt to fit the situation. Think about OARS: open questions, affirmations, reflective listening, summarising.
  • Ask the individual what they need – they are often the best experts of managing their condition.
  • Focus on what the person can do, not what they can’t.
  • Tailor adjustments to the specific needs and abilities of the individual – be creative.
  • Be flexible, as some mental health conditions can be episodic. It may be more helpful to agree adjustments that can be implemented as and when required and revoked when not.
  • Agree the adjustments which are appropriate for the organisation and the individual.
  • Be realistic about what you can offer. If you’re unsure, consult your manager, HR department, Occupational Health and/or your legal adviser. The Acas helpline may also be able to offer you guidance.
  • Regularly review the adjustments to ensure they are working and are still appropriate.
  • With the permission of the individual, communicate the adjustments to other team members to alleviate perceptions of favourable treatment.
  • Consider the wider organisational context in which the adjustments are being made and whether or not they can be offered to all staff.
  • Always take advice if you’re not sure what to do.

Don’t:

  • Give advice unless you’re qualified to do so.
  • Sympathise, as it may not be appropriate to do so.
  • Disclose the person’s issues to anyone who doesn’t need to know.
  • Feel guilty if the issue is work-related – instead, try to establish the cause and attempt to rectify it.

Want to continue reading? 

Download the full 10-step guide opposite for more practical tips, including some of the initiatives we’ve tried here at Ellis Whittam than you may be able to adopt within your own organisation.

Free Download: 10 Ways to Wellbeing | An Employer's Guide

Best-practice tips and advice from our HR and People Engagement experts to help you maintain a happy, healthy, productive workforce during times of change.

Put your best foot forward with Mental Health Awareness training

In a world where employees now commonly value happiness over salary and benefits, building your wellbeing strategy should be just as important as building your brand and developing your products and services.

If employee wellbeing is high on your agenda for 2021, training is a great place to start. Our Mental Health Awareness course is designed and delivered by seasoned HR specialists to offer practical tips and solutions and is perfect for team leaders, line managers and directors looking to develop their skills, confidence and understanding. Find out more or explore our other HR training courses.

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We combine the service quality of a law firm with the certainty of fixed-fee services to provide expert, solutions-focused Employment LawHR and Health & Safety support tailored to employers.

Call us on 0345 226 8393.

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We combine the service quality of a law firm with the certainty of fixed-fee services to provide expert, solutions-focused Employment LawHR and Health & Safety support tailored to employers.

Call us on 0345 226 8393.

Get your FREE download

We combine the service quality of a law firm with the certainty of fixed-fee services to provide expert, solutions-focused Employment LawHR and Health & Safety support tailored to employers.

Call us on 0345 226 8393.

Get your FREE download

We combine the service quality of a law firm with the certainty of fixed-fee services to provide expert, solutions-focused Employment LawHR and Health & Safety support tailored to employers.

Call us on 0345 226 8393.

Get your FREE download

We combine the service quality of a law firm with the certainty of fixed-fee services to provide expert, solutions-focused Employment LawHR and Health & Safety support tailored to employers.

Call us on 0345 226 8393.

Get your FREE download

We combine the service quality of a law firm with the certainty of fixed-fee services to provide expert, solutions-focused Employment LawHR and Health & Safety support tailored to employers.

Call us on 0345 226 8393.

Get your FREE download

We combine the service quality of a law firm with the certainty of fixed-fee services to provide expert, solutions-focused Employment LawHR and Health & Safety support tailored to employers.

Call us on 0345 226 8393.

Get your FREE download

We combine the service quality of a law firm with the certainty of fixed-fee services to provide expert, solutions-focused Employment LawHR and Health & Safety support tailored to employers.

Call us on 0345 226 8393.

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