Louise Aston: Employers must commit to long-term mental health support

If, at the start of 2020, I had been asked whether organisations had the insights, structures and ability to support their workforce through upheavals like those we have been over the last eight months, I would have had had my doubts. But everything I have seen since Covid-19 has proved me wrong: businesses have stepped up for their employees like never before.

I never imagined it would be a global pandemic which would propel businesses to elevate mental health on a parity with physical health. Research published this month by Business in the Community (BITC), in partnership with Bupa, the BITC Wellbeing Leadership team and YouGov, shows that employees think that they have been well-supported through the upheaval and stress. Although 41% of workers experienced work-related mental health symptoms in the last year, almost two-thirds believe that their employer has recognised the challenges for staff posed by Covid-19. In fact, 76% of employees felt that colleagues are being considerate of mental wellbeing, with 69% thinking the same of line managers. As the lines between our homes and our jobs blurred during lockdown, the link between our wellbeing and our work became inescapable.

Our focus now has to be on making sure that change is long-lasting. I am optimistic; after all, we know what good looks like for responsible employers. From Lloyds Banking Group’s culture of honesty around its senior leaders’ mental health to Santander’s enlightened approach to supporting victims of domestic abuse, the central principle is fairly simple: a whole-person, whole-organisation approach, taking account of all factors which can impact our mental health, is the only way to make policies meaningful for an individual. Businesses do not have to reinvent the wheel: the Mental Health at Work Commitment provides a framework for any organisation, with six simple principles to guide action.

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Now, as the threat of a second lockdown looms and we enter the next stage of this crisis, the nation’s wellbeing is going to be even more important. But the last few months have proved that, when they put their minds to it, employers can embrace the role they have to play in their employees’ lives. At the start of the year, I might have wondered whether organisations had it in them to meet challenges of the scale we have seen; now, I have no doubts at all that they can cope with whatever comes next.

Louise Aston is wellbeing director at Business in the Community (BITC).