Alison Pay: We are at a critical junction for workplace mental health

Over the course of the last year the signs are that we’ve become more comfortable to talk about our mental health at work. The pandemic has impacted most people and both the shock and discomfort of finding ourselves in lockdown, on furlough or working virtually prompted many employers to either supercharge their mental health and wellbeing plans or regret that this had not yet been allocated the budget it needed. Senior leaders spoke up about the impact on their own mental health and that of their families; and those that were less enlightened were vilified on social media for their outdated and inhumane views of leadership and mental health.

However, even as the uncertainty prevails around lockdown easing, there are signs that in many organisations this focus on mental health was short lived. As we emerge from a year of juggling multiple pressures, concerns around friends and family, grief and isolation, coupled with the blurred boundaries between home and work, the impact on mental health is apparent; according to a survey published by Indeed in March 2021, 44% of employees stated that their mental health was worse than it was in the first lockdown. We are increasingly hearing about ‘burnout’, client pressure, staff turnover concerns and the ‘situational anxiety’ that comes with any transition.

We are at a critical junction for workplace mental health and the employers that recognise this and manage skilfully will see the benefit repaid in staff engagement and ultimately results. An open and natural conversation is at the heart of this; engaging with staff to understand how they are and how they might be feeling about a return to the office or from furlough. Often, a conversation is enough; asking open questions which give an employee an opportunity to talk. It might be that there is flexibility to make a reasonable adjustment around location or working pattern, a consideration when according to research by Personio in March 2021, one in four employees would resign if they were forced to return to the office.

The return to work or office is an opportunity for employers to use a wellness action plan (WAP) to ensure the key areas of concern are covered in this conversation, that they have found out a little bit more about their employee and that they feel valued and supported in the process.

For many, these conversations don’t come naturally and unfortunately checklists and ‘hints and tips’ just don’t cut it. Investing in skills training for line managers, supported by robust and trusted signposting, including an employee assistance programme (EAP), can increase both the confidence and competence to ensure this happens. For those employees who would prefer not to talk to their manager, a trusted internal network of listeners, can bridge this gap, embedding mental health at the heart of the organisation. The focus on employee wellbeing and mental health needs to be a long-term plan, with steady and ongoing investment in activities that make a difference. We have an opportunity to learn from our experience of the pandemic and make our workplaces fully inclusive around mental health. Or we can choose to take a different route and await the consequences.

Alison Pay is managing director of Mental Health at Work