Mental Health in the Workplace: Navigating the Easing of Lockdown Restrictions While Prioritising Mental Wellbeing

In light of Mental Health Awareness Month, Digitalisation World spoke to six industry leading professionals to understand what companies should be doing to assist their employees mental wellbeing as the UK leaves lockdown.

The difficulties of this past year have not been lost on anyone; the effects of COVID-19 have been more significant and further reaching than anyone could have predicted. While the roadmap out of lockdown has provided the British public with a much needed light at the end of the tunnel, it brings about with it it’s own challenges. Without clear separation between work and home stress levels of employees has skyrocketed, as many as 36% of remote workers reported feeling as though they always had to be contactable and respond to work emails quickly.

The benefits of the digital age have somewhat softened the impact COVID-19 has had on many businesses. New technologies, such as the cloud and video conferencing, have allowed for a reasonably smooth transition to remote working. However, there are downsides to these technological innovations. Samantha Humphries, Head of Security Strategy, EMEA for Exabeam comments, “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. Even taking personal time off to relax can be tough to achieve”.

She continues: “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”.

Liz Cook, People Director for 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.”

Implementing Positive Initiatives

In order to promote positive mental wellbeing and healthy work practices, Six Degrees has implemented several initiatives within their company. “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 so important for us all to be kind to each other. These last few months have not been easy on anyone, but by understanding what is causing us personal stress we can learn what steps we can take to reduce it for ourselves and those around us."

Rob Shaw, MD EMEA at Fluent Commerce, continues, “whilst mental health issues have been spoken about more widely in recent years, employees may find it daunting to share if they are struggling with their manager. Employers should create a culture where employees are able to openly discuss their feelings without fear of repercussion. Sharing online resources, having dedicated chat platforms where concerns can be shared, or having a qualified Mental Health First Aider, all help to support employees and show you are dedicated to their wellbeing.”

He adds: “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. Our flexible leave policy also encourages the team to take time out if they need a mental, or physical, break. 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.”

Similarly, Kleopatra Kivrakidou, Channel Marketing Manager EMEA at Ergotron, explains how the company has implemented important initiatives to promote that their employees are appropriately equipped to deal with the real-life demands of long-term remote working as well as creating a hybrid workplace. They, “encourage employees to log off at the end of the day at the right time and provide opportunities for employees to take time out to socialise with their colleagues (virtually or in-person). Opportunities to get away from the screen to talk to other members of staff is good for encouraging conversation, but also mental support.”

She continues: “Although employees may be busy in their day-to-day work, it’s important to put health and wellbeing front and centre, by encouraging staff to take regular breaks from their screen. With most employees spending most of their time in their home-office, employers can help to create the right environment at home, so it’s less stressful and more productive.”

Keeping the Positives

In the midst of the difficulties of this year there have thankfully been some benefits that the hardships of COVID-19 has brought. Martin Taylor, Deputy CEO at Content Guru, highlights that remote working has had many positive effects on the productivity and family life of many employees. “To my surprise, productivity in many teams went up almost straight away, and stayed there. In the end, only two colleagues out of over 300 said they didn’t see any benefit from being at home. Generally, pretty much everyone found it better for family life and fitness. Many have used the new flexibility to focus on their health.”

However, he continues, “most businesses are now at the point where they could do with being together more. Any plan to return employees to the office should focus on maintaining the most effective aspects of remote working. The pandemic has had plenty of negative effects, but if businesses can bake flexibility into their long-term outlook, we’ll have a happier, healthier and more productive workforce long into the future.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a huge toll on people’s mental wellbeing over the last year. 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. However, it hasn’t been all negative. Not only has remote work opened up more flexibility for employees to spend time with their families, but the isolation brought about by COVID-19 has once again opened up essential dialogue on the impact of mental health and most importantly, what can be done to promote mental wellbeing. It is important that we continue this attitude and focus on mental health throughout the coming months as the ‘workplace norm’ once again changes.

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