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15 May 2020updated 17 Jan 2024 6:08am

What needs to change about the world of work

Employers and employees must work together towards a more honest and open discussion around mental health.

By Dr Subashini M

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that work is good for us. But it can also be a prominent cause of mental health concerns. Aviva’s recent Health of the Workplace research*, which was conducted before the current Covid-19 pandemic, sheds some light on this paradox – and the differences between the views of employers and employees when it comes to meeting the challenges it encompasses.

At a time when UK businesses are facing a prolonged period of uncertainty and significant changes in their employees’ workplace environment, key insights from the report demonstrate how employers can better understand and manage mental wellbeing in the workplace – wherever that may be. Looking after the health of the UK’s workforce is more critical than ever. Ultimately, each company’s workforce is the foundation of its business – without which it can’t operate.

1. Mental health means different things to different peopleThe strongest influences on mental health – positive or negative – vary considerably from one individual to the next, so taking a personalised approach is key. Your people will react to the current situation in different ways and have different needs. Although it feels obvious, sometimes the personal touch can be lost when employers consider the collective needs of their employees, especially when working remotely. Yes, there’s a place for broad-brush communications but try to make provision for the “I” as part of the collective “we”.

2. Work is the leading contributor to mental health concerns
Even before the current pandemic, our research revealed high levels of mental ill-health amongst the UK workforce. Worryingly, 92 per cent of workers reported a mental health symptom – and, for 41 per cent, the most negative impact on mental health was work.

Covid-19 adds increased pressure. Employees are facing a prolonged period of uncertainty while coming to terms with very different working practices. Even employees who are used to home working are likely to be facing the challenge of balancing their working lives with supporting their families.

This is where increased flexibility can play a key role. Our Health of the Workforce research showed that even before the current change in working practices, flexible working is a benefit.
In fact, 80 per cent of employees deemed it to be an important benefit.

Even for those without flexible working policies the likelihood is that the focus has shifted from the traditional 9-to-5 working pattern to “getting the job done when and how you can”. However, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of feeling like you need to be constantly available when you’re working from home, particularly in these uncertain times.

It’s therefore important to encourage employees to take regular breaks away from their screens to recharge their batteries, clear their minds or go outside for a breath of fresh air, while adhering to the current social distancing directive.

Yes, work needs to be done, but it’s important that employees recognise that they need to be kind to themselves and to give themselves permission to focus on their own wellbeing.

3. Workers are feeling lonely or isolated at work
Worryingly, our Health of the Workplace research revealed that over a quarter of employees felt isolated or lonely at work. With the significant increase in homeworking this figure could increase considerably if the appropriate support isn’t put in place.

It’s easy to feel alone when you’re working from home, so regular, open and honest communication is essential. Even though we’re socially distancing ourselves from other people, this doesn’t mean that we should be socially isolating ourselves.

Allow time to check in with your colleagues to update them on the current situation and find out how they’re feeling. Social wellbeing is extremely important in times of uncertainty. It’s important that employees understand employers’ expectations, have a purpose and feel part of their organisation.

Modern technology makes it easy to keep in touch with mobile phones, conferencing facilities and messaging. If possible, encourage employees to turn their video cameras on. Sometimes seeing a face can make all the difference.

While technology is an enabler, don’t forget to remind employees about your company’s social media policies and IT and data security measures. You don’t want to inadvertently open yourselves up to reputational risk or cybercrime.

4. There’s more openness about mental health – but not all managers are easily approachable
Our research also showed that perceptions are shifting, in line with the societal change towards more openness around mental health. This drives more individuals to talk about the issue, with the role of line managers crucial to outcomes achieved as a result of this new openness. 88 per cent of employers agree “it’s OK not to be OK” but only one in ten employees said they would talk to their manager about their mental health.

Moreover, our research highlighted a disconnect where employers say that they want to support mental health in the workplace, but employees don’t feel that they’re receiving it. Seventy-seven per cent of employers said that they’re good at recognising when their colleagues are feeling under pressure. But only 37 per cent of employees agreed.

The disconnect is particularly apparent when tasks asked of employees do not change nor does the workplace culture, despite the acknowledgement of wanting to support mental health in the workplace. Employees should feel that they can be authentic at work, feel able to speak up about their mental health, and be accepted and supported by their line managers and colleagues.

Our experience is that there’s a difference between saying and doing things: you can follow guidelines and protocols, but this needs to be done with connection and authenticity. Everyone can experience triggers and symptoms that impact their mental health and the pandemic is an extreme example.

It’s also about signposting employees to the most appropriate support as mental wellbeing is also linked to financial, physical and social wellbeing. It could mean offering line manager training, resilience training, access to an employee assistance programme, more flexible working or to utilise clinical support and benefits such as group income protection.

The key is to recognise and respond to the needs of your workforce. Once you know what makes your employees tick, you can start offering them the support that they need both now – and when we return to “normality”.

*All figures quoted in this article are from Aviva’s Health of the Workplace research conducted by YouGov plc between 1 and 9 November 2019.

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