Ahead of Mental Health Awareness week, industry experts discuss what employers can do to support employee wellbeing through remote working and beyond
The effects of COVID-19 have left many of us experiencing higher levels of stress and mental ill-health. According to the CIPD’s Health and Wellbeing at Work report, 37% of respondents revealed that stress-related absence had increased in the last year. However, whilst pandemic-related worries, lockdowns and remote working have all impacted on the nation’s mental health, promisingly, COVID-19 has also provided businesses with the opportunity to address the stigma of mental health head-on.
In light of Mental Health Awareness Week (10th-16th May), we spoke with six technology experts to get their advice on how organisations can minimise the triggers of negative mental health relating to work, and better support employees who may be struggling.
Promote an open channel of communication, both from home and the office
“Stress Awareness Month has taken on a new importance over the last year,” says Agata Nowakowska, AVP EMEA at Skillsoft. “Now more than ever, employers need to raise the profile of workplace wellbeing and implement programmes that will support employees, both virtually and in-person. Organisations need to view employee wellbeing as a strategic priority, supporting employees dealing with stress by equipping them with the awareness and resources they need to nurture their own mental health. Whether it’s providing access to health services, such as mobile apps where employees can ask for assistance from professionals, or hosting a virtual yoga class – there are many ways organisations can support employee wellbeing and promote good mental health for all.”
Rob Shaw, MD EMEA at Fluent Commerce, adds: “A total of 17.9 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2019/20 – highlighting the scale of the challenge employers face in effectively supporting employee wellbeing and promoting effective discussions around mental health.
“At Fluent Commerce, open and transparent communication is actively encouraged. We operate weekly Q&A sessions which enable our team to raise any work-related concerns, as well as providing a free counselling service our employees can access anonymously.”
Rob maintains that “cultivating a culture of care requires open discussions with the policies to back this up. So whilst initiatives like Mental Health Awareness Week are great for starting the discussion – it’s imperative we keep the momentum going and make a positive change.”
Kathryn Barnes, Employment Counsel EMEA at Globalization Partners agrees: “As many companies return to the physical workspace, employers must also consider how to offer extra support to any employees feeling nervous about returning to work. Helping to quell ‘post-lockdown anxiety’ starts with cultivating an open culture where employees feel comfortable speaking openly and confidentially about any concerns they may have. Only by recognising and understanding the problem, can employers effectively review ways to support employees and help alleviate stress.”
Working effectively and sustainably
Research from Trust Radius suggests that 57% of women in tech feel burned out at work this year, compared to 36% of men. “Whilst it’s not healthy to perpetuate a ‘men vs women’ attitude, women at work have more hurdles to overcome and so I believe this is a reflective statistic, says Sara Hamilton, Deputy Director of Product and Managed Services, Mango Solutions. “For example, as a woman in tech, you have to work harder to show or prove your worth, than male counterparts. Women also tend to feel more heavily scrutinised for things like sick leave for physical or mental health, because it can appear as “weakness” and so they push on when they shouldn’t.
“To help address this issue, employers should emphasise how there is no heroism in martyrdom or being seen to be working – the real money is in working effectively and sustainably.”
Turning off: Finding the right balance between work and play
“Due to the unpredictable nature of data breaches, security operations teams commonly work in an always on state, which leaves many with the inability to switch off when they down tools for the day,” says Samantha Humphries, Head of Security Strategy EMEA at Exabeam.
“We continue to see a relentless volume of attacks and breaches, from phishing to ransomware to insider threats and unfortunately for some even nation state attacks. Coupled with extended periods of working from home in the last year for many of us, it has meant balancing parenting and home-schooling with professional responsibilities.”
Samantha urges business leaders to check in with their valued security teams on an individual level: “Acknowledge and validate, share advice and provide resources that can help, and most importantly celebrate the wins.”
Liz Cook, People Director at Six Degrees adds: “Global events throughout the past 12 months have left many of us experiencing higher levels of stress resulting from feelings of disconnection, uncertainty, and a worrying loss of control. As the People Director of a technology company, I think it’s important to appreciate the benefits technology can bring when it comes to communicating, collaborating and staying productive, while also taking time to understand the extra stress they have the potential to cause.
“Along with bolstering our team of mental health first aiders and carrying out lunch and learn sessions on mental wellbeing, we have created working guidelines for wellbeing which reiterate that if people continue to need to work flexible hours due to personal reasons or commitments, it is still so important to ensure they take a lunch break for some time away from the screen and to get some fresh air. People should also consider the impact of sending emails or Teams messages outside of core hours, as they sometimes won’t appreciate the stress this can cause people receiving them.”
“It is not unusual for employees to sacrifice their personal wellbeing to succeed at work,” adds Kathryn. “The pressure to work extra hours has made workers increasingly vulnerable to burnout and poor mental health.”
According to the ONS, those working from home during 2020 did on average six hours unpaid overtime per week, with 74% of UK adults feeling so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.
Acknowledging this statistic, Kathryn argues that it is crucial for employers to “encourage employees to find the right balance between work and play, reassuring them that working from home does not mean being ‘on’ 24/7. Checking in to see how employees are coping, looking out for signs of stress, and ensuring that employees are taking adequate breaks away from their desk, all demonstrate a commitment to employee wellbeing. Employers should also encourage employees to be compassionate to themselves, helping to manage their own (often unrealistic) expectations of what can and needs to be done.”
Discussions surrounding employee wellbeing, such as those ignited by Mental Health Awareness Week, are fundamental to tackling the stigma of mental health. This week serves as a solid reminder for employers to remain committed to positive change and putting the health of their employees where it should be, first.
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