Alison Pay: Has the pandemic changed employers’ priorities around workplace wellbeing? 

When it comes to employers’ priorities around wellbeing, and specifically mental health, the pace of change has been slow and, in many cases, inadequate.

The Business in the Community (BITC survey), Mental health at work 2020, published in October 2020, indicated that 30% of people would still not tell anyone about a mental health issue, and for men, this figure rises to 35%. We have seen increased openness in workplaces talking about mental health, particularly at key points in the wellbeing calendar, such as Mental Health Awareness Week. But, being frank, many organisations are only dipping their toes in the water, and have yet to make a commitment on any scale to invest in skills training and embed a programme in business as usual, leaving an array of valuable benefits, such as employee assistance programmes, (EAP) underutilised.

The pandemic brought a shock wave of change across working lives for everyone, whether this involved working from home or socially distanced workplaces, increased workload, furloughed staff or the possibility of redundancy. As employees have settled into what would become the ‘new normal’, one of the key characteristics that would define an organisation or team’s ability to adapt, was not simply technology, but how comfortable they were to talk about mental health within their workplace environment, and what signposting and support was already tried, tested and readily available, without stigma or fear of usage.

At Mental Health at Work, the ongoing dialogue with our clients continued; there was demand for increased signposting resources, particularly around working virtually and ideas for supporting individual mental health. Rapidly a new confidence emerged among these organisations; the key factor was the recognition that knowing your co-workers, noticing changes and having open conversations about mental health, matter more than ever. This might feel more challenging in a virtual work environment when it is harder to read visual clues, but if you can make the time to ask questions and have the kindness to listen then this can be overcome.

In organisations where investment has already been made in terms of mental health allies to listen and signpost, these groups were mobilised to support line managers adapting to the changes of virtual working, available as needed for anyone who needed it, proactively leading wellbeing check-ins and encouraging staff to talk.

These organisations have already begun to consider the next phase of their mental health programme; with customised virtual delivery of workshops and webinars to address the specific training needs of their teams. There are important discussions to be had about pace and ongoing anxiety. One of the upsides of the pandemic has been that we have had the opportunity to get to know our employees better than ever, if we have been humane and brave enough to ask.

The challenges of shared accommodation, home schooling, concerns for elderly or unwell relatives, the interruptions of pets; these can all help us form a connection way beyond the usual parameters of work niceties. It is going to be a long winter and the importance of those conversations with employees around mental health have never been greater. Now is the time to invest in the skills to make that happen. Without it, the package of well-considered benefits, however glossy, will remain underutilised with the resultant impact on employee satisfaction, productivity and mental health.

Alison Pay is managing director at Mental Health at work