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21 May 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 3:03pm

Why all businesses must put people first

The world of work has changed. Employers must manage the situation carefully and help staff to adapt.

By Emma Mamo

Many employees are facing big challenges both personally and professionally. Whether that is on the frontline delivering vital services and dealing with the immediate emergency on our hands, working remotely to self-isolate from others, finding ourselves temporarily out of work or juggling parenting and employment, there can be no doubt the coronavirus has had a profound impact on the UK workforce.

We are all having to make big changes to our daily lives at relatively short notice, including how we work – whether that is hours, location, or even being able to do our jobs at all, with many people losing work or being furloughed. This requires adjustment, which can stir up a range of emotions. You may well feel particularly anxious at this time, especially if you already have experience of mental health problems. But there are lots of things we can all do to stay as mentally healthy as possible.

Technology has allowed many of us to work remotely, with fewer depending on coming into an office or other usual place of work. But there’s a difference between being contracted to work from home and working from home being forced upon us, which can be a difficult adjustment if it is not something we are used to.

At times like these, it is more important than ever that our employers put additional wellbeing interventions in place to help tackle the work-related causes of poor mental health and stress, promote wellbeing for all staff and support employees already living with a mental health problem. This pandemic will be affecting people in different ways, and it is important, therefore, that employers take stock of staff wellbeing and ensure there is two-way dialogue as everyone adapts.

In recent years, we have seen a growing number of employers recognise the need to prioritise staff wellbeing, which is welcome. Organisations offering schemes like flexible working hours, generous annual leave, Employee Assistance Programmes (24-hour, confidential support) and subsidised exercise classes are now common currency, with smart employers reaping the benefit in terms of staff loyalty, retention and productivity.

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While the current situation may have changed the way employees access some schemes, it’s really important that they are still made available, and that they are adaptable to the situation many of us find ourselves in. Here at Mind, for example, we are continuing to offer subsidised yoga and pilates classes, reflective practice sessions and guided meditation through virtual platforms now that staff are unable to take part face-to-face. We have long emphasised the importance of managers regularly creating space for staff to raise any problems that might arise – may they be personal or professional – and as many employers move to remote working this is all the more important, with frequent check-ins over apps such as Zoom, Skype and Microsoft Teams.

If, like so many employees at the moment, you find yourself working alone, it can make it more challenging for colleagues to notice changes in your mood or behaviour. It might be useful to let partners, people you live with or friends and family know about possible triggers and what stress and poor mental health looks like for you, so they can spot any signs of deterioration. Symptoms can include feelings of isolation, lethargy, lack of self-esteem, restlessness, irritability, or a lack of interest in the things you normally enjoy. Symptoms can be physical as well as emotional; you may be having trouble sleeping, eating more or less than usual, or turning to alcohol or drugs.

There’s no “normal” way to emotionally respond to a pandemic; there isn’t a rulebook for this situation, and the mental health impact it will have on us all cannot be underestimated. It is vital that we are all taking steps to look after our own mental health at the moment, as well as keeping an eye out for loved ones. Ignoring warning signs can lead people to become even more unwell and reach crisis point, which not only puts more pressure on the NHS, but endangers lives. If you notice changes to your feelings, thoughts and behaviours that last longer than two weeks – negative feelings that you keep returning to, feelings that are having an impact on your daily life – talk to someone you trust, such as a loved one or a health professional. Most GP surgeries are still able to offer consultations online or on the phone, but check with your practice to find out what they can do.

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We might find ourselves with more or less time on our hands. Those of us who are no longer commuting to and from work might find we have more time in the mornings or evenings for things we enjoy, like exercise or relaxation. Conversely, those of us working in areas like healthcare will find our workload is even higher than normal. Most of us enjoy being busy, but there is a fine line between pressure and unmanageable stress, which happens when we can no longer cope with what’s being asked of us. Staff who also have parental responsibilities might find that – with the kids out of school and in need of entertainment, education and stimulation during the day – our work keeps on top of us late into the evenings, leaving less time available for important things like exercise, relaxation and sleep. For those people who have been gifted more time, it can feel like a double-edged sword, as we are limited in terms of how to stay occupied within the constraints of self-isolation and social distancing.

Don’t forget there are lots of other things you can do, including online courses, learning a new instrument, language or skill, not to mention taking part in volunteering schemes to support the NHS. The fight to tackle coronavirus needs support from all of us coming together at every level of society – including the government, the NHS, charities, businesses, communities, families, and individuals.

Emma Mamo is head of workplace wellbeing at Mind.