There are many steps that employers and employees can take to address the challenges of working from home in order to ensure a happy workforce.
Photograph: Tadeu Dreyer/Stocksy United
Over most of the past year, many of us have found our working environments and schedules changing drastically. Working from home, following new guidelines in the workplace or juggling childcare with an overflowing list of tasks and targets all bring challenges, and can understandably leave people feeling unsettled. Now more than ever, it’s vital that employees and employers are aware of their mental health and wellbeing needs, to keep the workforce happy and productive.
According to the Mental Health Foundation (MHF), addressing wellbeing in the workplace can increase productivity by as much as 12%, while the estimated value added to the economy by working people who have or have had mental health problems is £226bn a year.
So, how can employers implement strategies to ensure their staff are keeping their mental health in check? A first step can be setting boundaries, says clinical psychologist Linda Blair. She advises having open conversations about core working hours, especially now when more people are working from home. Respecting this and placing trust in your workers is key, she says. “[Employers] must show they trust their employees to get the work done and it is the employer’s responsibility not to set unrealistic targets.”
Blair recommends introducing five-minute weekly check-ins to discuss workloads, where managers and employers can ask employees individually if they are having particular trouble with any task or feeling overloaded. She stresses, however, that these check-ins should focus on work tasks, although there can be room to discuss mental health if the employee so wishes.
Reminding staff of any mental health or counselling services that they can access could be beneficial, but employers must be careful not to make workers feel forced to use them. “Some people find it more distressing than not having the facilities available,” says Blair. Underlining the fact that the services are confidential and have no bearing on an individual’s career advancement or salary can also be helpful and reassuring, she says.
Employers should respect employees’ working hours, leaving them time for rest, exercise and their families. Photograph: 10’000 Hours/Getty Images
But when it comes to mental health in the workplace, Blair has an important message for employers: prevention is key. “If employers make sure that their employees get rest and know they won’t be bothered outside of the boundaried hours, they’ll be more likely to remain mentally healthy than if they have counsellors, because that’s preventive.”
Employers can also access a range of online resources to help with this, such as the MHF’s employer checklist for creating mentally healthy workplaces, or the mental health charity Mind’s downloadable resources on how to improve mental wellbeing. Seeking out advice and education on the topic is critical, as a Mind survey found that although 56% of employers would like to do more to improve staff wellbeing they also felt they lacked the correct training and guidance. In the same survey, 30% of staff said they would not feel comfortable talking to their line manager if they were feeling stressed.
In its advice on mental health in the workplace, the MHF underlines the importance of relationships. Offering feedback and genuine praise when work has gone well is also crucial, though often undervalued and overlooked. And with many people working from home, employees are missing the social interactions they share with their teams and the support those colleagues provide.
Although many aspects of our working lives and office environments have changed significantly, there are still opportunities to implement modified versions of our daily joys in the office. For example, a virtual coffee morning over a video call. When we do go back to the workplace, Blair suggests adapting interactions according to the latest government safety guidelines, such as socially distanced tea breaks where employees bring their own mugs.
Once staff make the return to workplaces and offices, it’s highly likely that those environments will feel drastically different, which can induce feelings of anxiety and stress. Blair advises employers to adopt clear signage and communicate any new health and safety precautions to their staff. Visual cues of sanitisation are particularly helpful and reassuring.
Other crucial strategies for encouraging wellbeing and protecting mental health are taking regular exercise and getting outdoors, even if that involves only a short walk down the road. While the pandemic may have disrupted holiday plans and getaways, it is still important that staff take annual leave, and it may be helpful for employers to remind their workers of this. “Nothing is going to make you emotionally more protected than being rested,” says Blair. “It will ensure that you approach problems more logically than emotionally.”
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