Proactive steps to help employees strengthen their mental wellbeing

Need to know:

  • Mental health support is high on the agenda post pandemic, both for those still home working and those gradually coming back to physical workplaces.
  • When assessing what’s going to work best, it is important first to review what you currently offer, as there may be effective tools or services that are being under-used.
  • A one-size-fits-all approach may be less effective than really drilling down into what is going to help your employee demographic, and data analytics may help.

The words “I went back into the office for the first time” have begun to creep into Zoom or Teams calls more frequently over the past few weeks as UK workplaces gradually open back up.

As this change embeds and employers begin to grapple with what ‘work’ is going to look like post pandemic, one issue very much up for discussion is how employee benefits, and investment in employee benefits, will need to be focused in this new hybrid working world.

Benefits to support mental health and emotional wellbeing are likely to be critical within this. Indeed, the Emerging trends in healthcare delivery research published by consultants Willis Towers Watson in April 2021, highlighted that nine out of 10 firms are worried about employee mental health, and three-quarters as a result are planning rapidly to improve their provision in this area. Similarly, the Chartered Management Institute in April argued that mental health support will be a top priority for managers as employees return to physical workplaces.

The challenge here for employers, however, is understanding what’s going to work; what are the best, most proactive steps, for them to be taking to strengthen the mental health and resilience of their employees?

Resilience definition

In any discussion like this one of the first things to recognise is that even the word ‘resilience’ can be misunderstood. Debra Clark, head of specialist consulting at Towergate Health and Protection, points out: “[We] read a lot about ‘bouncing back’ and ‘stretching capability’. But resilience is referring not only to [our] response to something but also [our] general outlook.”

“It is important to have a consistent understanding of what resilience needs to mean to [a] business, and the environment people are working in. The other thing an employer needs to be aware of is there is no point giving staff resilience tools if [it is] then expecting them to do 25% more work with no extra support or resources,” she adds.

Another risk is to think that, just because we are dealing with a brave new working world, the answer is to rush off and invest in all sorts of new benefits and tools. Employers should, rather, first take a fresh look at what benefits they already have in place, advises Mark Southern, commercial director at health insurer WPA. “What can we dust off and use, or perhaps slightly change, to help people? The danger is of throwing money at something additional to what [they] have already got, without actually understanding whether what [they’ve] already got might in fact cover things,” he points out.

“For example, a good employee assistance programme (EAP) will include a huge amount of self-help libraries. Most EAPs, too, provide management support, but not all managers may be aware of this,” he adds. Group risk policies, too, will generally include a range of bolt-on benefits, such as second medical opinion and nurse and early intervention support services that may be being under used.

Benefits to make a difference

There is unlikely to be one hard-and-fast answer to this, as it will depend on the make-up of an organisation and the particular challenges and pressures its employees are facing. “There are so many services out there, all approaching this in different ways. It is very difficult for an employer, or an adviser, to know what works and what doesn’t. Compounding this is the fact that what will work for one person won’t necessarily work for another,” concedes Mike Blake, wellbeing lead at Willis Towers Watson.

What that means is, if employers want to make sure employees have the right mental health tools for them, there needs to be an ongoing process of engagement and communication.

“Let’s talk to [employees] more,” agrees Charles Alberts, head of wellbeing solutions UK at Aon. “That, I think, is one of the good things that has come out of the pandemic. Organisations are, in general, engaging more with their employees than they ever have before. [They] really need to home in on what will make a big difference.”

As well as traditional surveys and, well, just talking to employees, data analytics can play an important part in this process, argues Rebecca Spiller, client manager at employee wellbeing platform Tictrac. “A lot of employers run employee surveys or have lots of different HR tech within their intranet. But what is important is to really look at the data, analyse the aggregated insights and see what, actually, is going on,” she says.

“For example, employees might be saying ‘oh I’m really stressed’ but then, when you look at the data, what they’re looking for advice on is the fact they’re not sleeping well or that their workload is out of balance. So, there is a lot of information that can be inferred through data analytics, and it is about making sure [employers] are using all these aggregated insights to [their] best advantage,” she adds.

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Most of all, however, the best proactive step to help employees strengthen their mental wellbeing is simply to take a first step, to do something. As Towergate’s Clark puts it: “It is about knowing [their] staff, getting that baseline about what they need, and what they want and expect, getting a review date in and being prepared to change and adjust. Finally, just doing something is better than not doing anything at all.”

“If [employers] do something at least, [they] begin to open up the lines of communication; it becomes more acceptable to talk about these things; it builds the trust up with employees,” agrees Willis Towers Watson’s Blake. “[They] may have to try or offer different things, however, and have different solutions that will work for different people.”