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Over the course of the pandemic, the impact on mental health has been universally under the spotlight. The word ‘unprecedented’ was consistently heard in the early press briefings as events unfolded swiftly and unimaginably as everyone was confined to their homes unless they were key workers.

The dedicated 24/7 NHS mental health crisis helplines answered three million calls during the pandemic, indicating the impact of the pandemic on people over the past year. Here we examine the lasting impact as life is still not 100 per cent normal as variants persist and how employers can support employees.

Shaping mental health policies

Employers increasingly recognise their role in supporting employee mental health and wellbeing. According to our recent UK Reward Management Survey, 89 per cent of respondent employers actively adopted strategies that bolster employee wellbeing. 80 per cent of respondents reported that they have created employee surveys and consultations. Around half of respondent employers have made use of employee surveys and consultations to actively listen to employee concerns and act on feedback during this tumultuous period.

Actively listening to employees goes a long way to ensuring that they feel heard and seen. Experiences and employee reactions as we start to examine what workplaces will look like post-pandemic will vary widely. Employers are given the task of bridging the gap between those who might want to return to being with colleagues for the majority of the week to those who want to remain almost virtual if they have got into the routine of scheduling things such as dropping off their children at school before work. Whilst it is up to the employer to determine how accommodating they are when it comes to the spectrum of flexible working requests, fairness will be at the heart of the success of their response. Ensuring people are treated as individuals through listening and understanding their range of viewpoints will be critical to this process.

Stepping up to the unknown

As the first national lockdown unfolded, everything was new. The uncertainty called for constant communication from executive teams during the first lockdown. Many customers reported that CEOs were having weekly employee meetings to keep open lines of communication as remote working was rolled out to reflect the government policy to work from home. Over time, even though HR has reported lots of initiatives and communication plans to make people feel more comfortable with the return to the office, the level and impetus has reduced.

Frequency of change

Our HR Groups certainly captured the impression that people have not maintained communication initiatives such as virtual town halls and videos from senior leadership on a weekly basis. Whilst this may have successfully set the tone and it is up to teams to continue to be cohesive virtually to drive employee engagement, the dwindling of this senior-level communication comes at a time when many report working from home fatigue.

The blurring of home and work life, combined with the ongoing uncertainty of what will happen with the virus’ emerging variants has resulted in mental health deteriorating by 8.1 per cent in the UK, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies. Whilst it is understandable that as the frequency of change lessened, so did the senior-level comms, keeping that open line of communication and reinforcing the vision and direction of the company across a remote workforce could help to renew employees with purpose at a time when uncertainty persists.

Focusing on the individual

Whilst we have noted that treating people as individuals when it comes to working from home requests going forward, employers have noted the delicate balance to ensure each individual feels supported. Facilitating virtual connections, through online team building and catch ups, can tackle the risk of isolation for employees, some of which have not been in the office with colleagues since 2020. A return in any form may induce feelings of stress or anxiety in employees, so strong line management will be particularly important. Acas recommends that employees talk to line management about the range of support that is available to them, especially if they are on furlough, so many employers are ensuring that they publish line manager guidance on any hybrid working policies that they have defined.

Equipping your managers with consistent responses avoids policies being misapplied and gives managers the confidence to have open conversations with employees so that everyone feels that their views have been recognised. This ensures the right level of support is offered, in the hope that this creates the right environment where employees are more likely to flag any issues around their mental health. Mental health is so often still a topic with stigma surrounding it. 36 per cent of respondents to our autumn UK Reward Management Survey reported that they faced challenges around workplace stigma and perceptions when it came to managing mental health in the workplace. However, the main challenge was around communication.

Ongoing impact

Anecdotally, communications teams have shifted their focus away from crisis management and the intensity of communication around contingency plans has lessened. However, when it comes to mental health and ensuring individuals feel adequately supported, the fear is that the worst impact of the pandemic is yet to come. The move out of lockdown has been slower than predicted after the third lockdown at Christmas in 2020, which was a tipping point for many at the time and yet again when a further month was added to the full unlocking in the UK. We have heard from healthcare professionals that they fear that the impact on their frontline staff is yet to be felt as they have been focusing on the job in hand in tackling the virus and its every day impact. Last week it was reported that there was a 40 per cent rise in the number of NHS staff off sick due to mental health over the past year. The aftermath further down the line may mean that mental health needs to come even more into the fore over the coming months as uncertainty persists.

“By offering access to the right resources, employers can support physical, mental and financial wellbeing.”

In terms of the most popular mental health and wellbeing initiatives in the workplace, we asked employers in autumn 2020 and the top benefit was the Employee Assistance Programme, offered by 91 per cent of employers. This was followed by 89 per cent of respondents arranging access to counselling services and 87 per cent offering flexible working. Mental health champions in the workplace can help change attitudes towards openly talking about mental health. Others have offered employees access to apps like Headspace and Calm. Technology is transforming learning and development programmes, with other employers offering coaching apps such as BetterUp to drive wellbeing whilst promising measurable business outcomes. By offering access to the right resources, employers can support physical, mental and financial wellbeing which are all interrelated.

Get in touch

From being seen as a more caring employer which candidates want to join to improving employee experience, the mental health of your employees will have a direct impact on the productivity and bottom line of your business. Whatever model of working from home or returning to the workplace you adopt, ensuring that people do not feel isolated and have space to flag concerns or ideas will have a critical impact on your culture. Talk to us about how you can bolster employee mental health through the benefits you offer.

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