An Acas-commissioned YouGov survey back in May found that nearly two out of five employees working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic felt stressed, anxious or experienced mental health difficulties due to their working situation. It also found that one in two people working from home felt isolated and seven out of ten missed social interactions with colleagues.
Fast-forward four months and we find ourselves trying to reconcile the possibility of an imminent second lockdown alongside the government’s insistence that people who are currently homeworking should return to the office where possible.
Clearly we are still some way from life returning to normal and, for businesses with a workforce which is still split between some people working from home, some who are still furloughed and others who have returned to the office, it is an unsettled time for everyone.
Now, more than ever, employers should be aware of the scale and impact of stress in the workplace and be prepared to take all necessary steps to protect their employees’ mental well-being. Whether your employees are working from home, anxious about returning to the office or still on furlough leave, there are lots of ways you can offer meaningful and practical support during this unprecedented time.
Tip 1: Be aware of your legal obligations
Thanks to a major shift in how mental health is addressed and talked about in wider society, and a general improvement in public attitudes, many businesses have come to realise that staff well-being should be at the forefront of their employee strategy, regardless of what the law says. Nonetheless, it is important for all employers to understand the extent of their legal obligations in this area and the steps which they may be required to take, by law, in order to protect their employees.
All employers have a ‘duty of care’ to their employees which requires them to do all they reasonably can to support their employees’ health, safety and well-being. This duty extends to employees’ mental health and the Health and Safety at Work Act 1992 requires all employers to assess mental health work-related issues to measure the levels of risk to staff.
It is also important to note that, if an employee’s mental ill health is having a substantial and long-term effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, this could constitute a disability (and therefore a “protected characteristic”) under the Equality Act 2010. The result of this is that the employer would be prohibited from discriminating against such an employee on the grounds of poor mental health. It also triggers the employer’s duty to make reasonable adjustments to avoid disadvantages faced by disabled employees.
Workplace adjustments for mental ill health need not be costly nor require huge changes – it could be as simple as providing quiet areas in the office to allow staff to relocate during periods of stress. The only requirement is that the adjustments must seek to remove or reduce any barriers which the employee is currently facing and ensure that, as long as they have the rights skills for it, your employee is able to carry out their job.
Tip 2: Start as you mean to go on
The first few days of a job can be a very stressful and nerve-wracking experience, whether you are new to the organisation or just new to the role following and internal promotion. An effective induction programme is essential for building confidence and helping employees to start off their journey on the right foot.
Aside from the compulsory elements, such as providing health & safety information, staff inductions are a perfect opportunity for you to provide a clear outline of the employee’s role requirements and company expectations about working hours. By addressing these issues at the outset, you can help your employee to understand a bit more about the business’s culture and values and where they fit within the other functions of the organisation – as well as promoting messages about work-life balance – which should help to minimise any undue stress or pressure further down the line.
If, on reading this article, you are concerned that your own workplace culture may not be conducive to the disclosure of mental health concerns by your employees, now is the time to address this. Ideally, all line managers in your organisation should receive appropriate training to ensure they have the basic good people management skills necessary to create a positive and open culture where conversations about mental health are routine and normalised.
Tip 3: Remain approachable and available
Discussing the state of their mental health is not something which comes easily to vast majority of employees, or indeed to any of us, so it is essential that you remain approachable and available and that you actively encourage team members to talk to you if they are having any problems.
Remember, you don’t have to wait until someone brings a specific problem or concern to you. By checking in regularly with your team – finding out how they are, how they’re managing with their workload, if they require any additional support etc – you will hopefully be able to identify and deal with any issues at the earliest possible stage, before they turn into something more serious. At the very least, it will remind your employees that you are someone they can come to if they ever need to talk.
As mentioned in the previous point, it is also a good idea to make sure your employees are aware of your expectations of them in their role – and, where possible, to provide them with realistic targets and a clear set of priorities – as this will go a long way towards helping your employees to feel supported and motivated in their work.
We do of course also have to consider some of the specific challenges created by the current pandemic, namely an increase in remote working and the need for some employers to utilise the government’s job retention scheme. For staff on furlough leave, you will hopefully already have had a conversation with them regarding the extent to which they would like to keep in touch while they’re off. By keeping in regular contact with furloughed staff, it will ensure that they continue to feel connected to their workplace and will give them opportunities to let you know how they’re feeling and to discuss any concerns they may have about the future.
If you have a workforce which is now predominantly working from home, it will be more important than ever for you to regularly check in with your remote workers to see how they’re coping. Some employees will be feeling the pressure to always be available and may be struggling to “switch off” after working hours, whilst others may be struggling to manage their childcare arrangements alongside work commitments. How people are treated and managed on a day-today basis is central to their mental well-being and engagement, so don’t let it become a case of “out of sight out of mind.”
Tip 4: Stay vigilant
It is important to remember that mental health problems affect people in different ways and, even if you have succeeded in creating an environment where the majority of your employees feel able to share how they’re feeling, not everyone will be comfortable talking about their mental health. Whilst it is important to never make assumptions about anyone’s mental health, these are some of the possible warning signs that you should be vigilant of:-
- Employees appearing anxious or worried
- A lack of motivation or generally being less interested in tasks they previously enjoyed
- Significant emotional or behavioural changes such as outbursts of anger that seem out of character
- An increase in sickness absence or being late to work
- Being tired or withdrawn, possibly refusing to engage in normal activities and avoiding certain situations
- Changes in the standard of their work or focus on tasks
Obviously it is a lot harder to spot these signs when an employee is working from home or on furlough leave and I would refer back to my earlier comments on the importance of continuing to check in with staff even (especially) when you don’t see them in the office every day.
Tip 5: It’s good to talk
Knowing how to talk to an employee about their mental health may seem difficult, but, as outlined above, it is critical that your employees feel able to approach you about any issues they’re experiencing and it is important that you listen carefully to what they have to say. You might find the following advice from mental health charity, Mind, useful when you need to have that all important first conversation:-
- Choose an appropriate place – somewhere private and quiet where the person feels comfortable and equal. Possibly a neutral space outside of the workplace. If they are a remote worker, consider whether going to where they are may help.
- Don’t make assumptions – don’t try to guess what symptoms an employee might have and how these might affect their ability to do their job – many people are able to manage their mental health and perform their role to a high standard but may require support measures when experiencing a difficult period.
- Listen to people and respond flexibly – everyone’s experience of a mental health problem is different so treat people as individuals and focus on the person, not the problem. Adapt your support to suit the individual and involve people as much as possible in finding solutions to any work-related difficulties they’re experiencing. Remember effective workplace adjustments are often quite individual but needn’t be costly or require huge changes.
- Be honest and clear – if there are specific grounds for concern, like high absence levels or impaired performance, it’s important to address these at an early stage.
- Ensure confidentiality – people need to be reassured of confidentiality. It’s sensitive information and should be shared with as few people as possible. Create strict policies to ensure this. Discuss with the individual what information they would like shared and with whom.
- Develop an action plan – work with your employee to develop an individual action plan which identifies the signs of their mental health problem, triggers for stress, the possible impact on their work, who to contact in a crisis, and what support people need (see next point). The plan should include an agreed time to review the support measures to see if they’re working.
- Encourage people to seek advice and support – people should speak to their GP about available support from the NHS such as talking therapy. If your organisation has an Employee Assistance Programme it may be able to arrange counselling.
As a final (but by no means less important) point, please do not lose sight of the fact that the past six months have been no picnic for employers either! Trying to stay on top of your own regular workload whilst also providing additional emotional support to your workforce and navigating your business through immense economic uncertainty and logistical challenges… it’s enough to take its toll on anyone. It is easy to forget about your own needs at times like this, so please find time to share any concerns and troubles with a trusted colleague or friend and seek additional support if needed.
To discuss any of the issues raised in this article, or for further advice and support in relation to any Employment or HR matter, please email Jonathan Moreland (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Sharney Randhawa (email@example.com) or contact us by telephone on 0191 384 2441.