Francoise Woolley: Helping staff build resilience during challenging times

The pandemic has had a dramatic impact on our mental health. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), Coronavirus and depression in adults, Great Britain: June 2020, published in August 2020, revealed that 19.2% of adults in Great Britain are likely to be experiencing some form of depression; the pre-pandemic figure was 9.7%. With the Royal College of Psychiatrists saying that mental health services face a tsunami of cases following the Covid-19 lockdown, what part can employers play in building staff resilience in the workplace?

Resilience is not static. If our coping mechanisms are stretched too far, as in recent months, then something has to give. Talking to customers and colleagues, there are three pieces of advice I would give to employers in order to help build staff resilience.

First, do the basics well. In times of crisis, the simple things can become the causes of stress. Voice channels that allow staff to air their views and discuss changes, are more important than ever. And one-to-one catch-ups with managers, once just a nice to have in some businesses, are now critical for monitoring health and wellbeing. Also remember that some groups are more vulnerable than others, such as those from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (Bame) groups.

Second, re-negotiate what work looks like. For many of us, our work and home life have been turned upside down. We all know someone who has been working perched on the kitchen table while educating young children or caring for shielding relatives. Our employment contracts may need to change, to reflect different working patterns, but so does the psychological contract, because many of us have different expectations about what we want from the employment relationship. It is time for an open and honest conversation.

Third, do not make assumptions. Resilience is like a mental muscle that has been given a completely new daily workout. People will be feeling sore and tired. Try not to anticipate what people need or want; rather find out directly from them. For those staff who work remotely developing that all-important rapport can be a challenge. There are no easy answers; we have all tried replicating informal interactions on Zoom calls. Sometimes they work, sometimes not. Keep trying and make sure you involve everyone, including those on furlough.

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The government review of mental health at work, Thriving at work, published back in October 2017, called for employers to create environments that allow workers to thrive rather than strive. This still has to be the ultimate aim but, for now, we need a period of reflection that acknowledges the very real problems people are experiencing.

Francoise Woolley is head of mental health and wellbeing at Acas