Mental Health means more

As we try to predict our changing world of work, the mental health of our teams is more important than ever, says Sarah Harrop, head of HR at Bridge Insurance Brokers.

This week, the government has outline the start of its exit plan for COVID 19 with a strategy for a ‘graduated’ return to work and schools across the UK.

All but essential workers have been based at home for some time now, only leaving the house for exercise and shopping, and while most are being asked to keep working at home, we are now seeing many return to work. For all of us, COVID 19 has necessitated a change of working for most of us and enforced a completely different way of life for all. 

Being isolated, or spending all your time in one place has an impact, as Professor Paul Cosford, Emeritus Medical Director at Public Health England, points out: “It is natural for all of us to feel worried or anxious, but there are things we can all do to help ourselves and others, to prevent these feelings from becoming more serious.”

The challenge for business leaders has not just been about the practicalities of teams being furloughed or working from home. It has been to ensure that our working teams are well – both mentally and physically.

The Prime Minister’s strategy document asks us all to continue working from home if we can. And while group meetings on Microsoft Teams can ensure everyone is up to date on their tasks and kept abreast of the business aims and objectives throughout the pandemic, it’s imperative that organisations support their teams in other ways.

The NHS website provides clear advice which can be shared with employees, but as your team may be looking to you for further guidance and examples, here are some additional tips for business and HR leaders.

Change the way you communicate

Well-being and productivity go hand in hand. Reaching out and communicating is more important now than it’s ever been. Managers need to think about how to keep the business going at the same time as meeting employees’ need for flexibility. Leaders may need to change messaging to “we’re not going to be able to perform as well as normal but we have to do our best”, to give their teams space do what they can during this challenging period.

Provide tools

Mindful meditation was already popular before COVID 19, but it is now one of the things you can really encourage your team to practice. Recommend mental health apps, sleep apps, share quizzes and help by bookmarking quotes that might lift spirits. None of these should be enforced, merely shared.

Recognise warning signs

Everyone has different stress triggers; for some it could be the lack of physical contact with people, for others the change in workload. These triggers can also change from day to day, so regular check-ins are important, not to add pressure or talk about work, but simply to ask people how they are feeling and monitor their voice and facial expressions. Managing someone virtually is very different to managing them face to face, so we need to listen and hopefully recognise the triggers or underlying messages if all is not well.

Encourage time off

Holidays may be cancelled but your team should still be able to take time off – holidays help us recharge and reconnect, and usually mean we come back to work revitalised and inspired. During particularly stressful periods, it is more important than ever to switch off and even though two week holidays abroad are not on the agenda, a few days here and there could really make a difference to individuals. On a day to day level, managers need to remind employees to take a break during the day, get outside or just have a chat with a colleague.

Get ready for post-lockdown

Two thirds of people have admitted that they feel nervous about going to large public gatherings and a third would feel nervous going back to work post-COVID 19, so it’s imperative that a clear strategy is planned, with open and honest communication so that everyone can feel informed and prepared. Convey key messages and advice from the government, follow procedure and ensure everyone is clear on etiquette and rules once they are established (and be ready to change them as needed). The government’s 60 page document is at the time of writing being presented in the House of Commons, and has led to a raft of questions across the UK, so clarity and simplicity of messages is key.

Take care of yourself

You cannot lead a team of others if you are not in good shape yourself. This is why it is key that you prioritise your own wellbeing. The physical boundaries between home and work are blurred right now, so do ensure that the door (be it literal or figurative) is closed at the end of the working day, and that you eat well and make time for fresh air and exercise.

Mental health may not have been on the meeting agenda before COVID 19, but as we have all learned to work differently this year, it has become clear that it is something everyone will be prioritising in the future.  More and more businesses may now choose to maintain more flexible working, and check-ins will become more important if everyone starts to adopt a culture of remote productivity as opposed to one of physical presenteeism.

Aside from the human, ethical reasons that we should have mental health on the agenda, it is a fact that a healthy workforce is a productive one. So as we come out the other side of this – whenever that is and however it looks – it should remain top of our lists.