Stuart Gentle Publisher at Onrec

How to support employee mental health during the third lockdown

Danni Rush, Chief Customer Officer at Virgin Incentives and Virgin Experience Days

The long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic remains unclear, with the Chancellor recently admitting that the ‘economic emergency has only just begun’ and that the past year will shape public finances for the next decade.

However, despite these uncertainties, one issue is apparent – the pandemic has worsened the mental health crisis in the UK.

Before COVID-19, mental health was already an issue of growing concern in society, with a 2019 study by Mind finding that one in five women and one in eight men suffer from a common mental health disorder.

The past twelve months and the continual disruption of the pandemic has ruthlessly exploited this pre-existing crisis. A Glasgow University study found that 41% of the UK population is at risk of developing mental health problems as a direct result of COVID-19, while a separate study found that 31% of UK children are now suffering from anxiety.

These problems are not isolated to the home. Throughout the pandemic, stress-related absences have been steadily rising, with a study this month revealing that stress-related appointments are up 64% over 2019.

With the UK in a third lockdown without an endpoint and the daily death toll still hovering in the thousands, these figures will likely rise, and business leaders will need to put their employees’ mental health and wellbeing at the forefront of their agenda.

Why communication is key

This week marks Time to Talk Day, when everyone is encouraged to be more open about discussing mental health. And businesses also have a role to play too.

But, with 67% of employees admitting they wouldn’t talk to their bosses about mental health, this approach may be easier said than done. Opening lines of communication about sensitive mental health issues in the working environment could exacerbate existing disorders and lead to higher rates of staff absences.

Business leaders therefore need to approach the issue sensitively by adopting an ‘open door’ policy where all employees are encouraged and feel comfortable enough to talk to their line managers about how they are feeling, how they have been impacted and any ongoing concerns. You should also consider appointing mental health ‘champions’ within your workplace, whom people can approach and discuss their matters privately. Having a secure and compassionate forum usually reduces a lot of anxiety and ambiguity.

How to listen to your employees

It can take time for employees to feel comfortable to talk about their mental health issues. If an employee does choose to share their personal experience and struggles, then business leaders need to remember that they shouldn’t listen with the sole intention of fixing the issue.

Although a business leader may instinctively want to help their employee, often just listening or showing your team that you are taking their concerns on board can help someone manage better. Make sure your line managers have a regular one-to-one with their teams, and they encourage their colleagues to talk about any problems they’re having, openly and freely, in confidence

Why you should consider an Employee Assistance Programme

Alternatively, if employees feel uncomfortable about opening up to their employers, then business leaders should offer a free Employee Assistance Programme (EAP).

An EAP will give your employees 24/7 confidential access to help and advice whenever they feel they need it most.

Importantly, an EAP assures that employees will get access to trained professionals who will be best placed to support them with any mental health issues.

The value of a reward and recognition programme

Alongside an EAP, business leaders should consider a reward and recognition programme to boost employee morale and wellbeing.

Acknowledging employees’ hard work has a positive impact on them. Our latest whitepaper – which surveyed 2,000 employees across the UK – found that 68% of organisations with a reward and recognition programme had strong employee retention.

However, the same whitepaper also found that 22% of employees have never received a reward from their employer.

This is something that will need to be rectified soon. With the whole world going through a period of unprecedented disruption, employees will be looking to employers for help and support.

A recognition programme – which can involve financial or non-financial rewards – will not only have a significant impact on overall employee mental health and wellbeing but will also create a more harmonious company culture and improve talent retention.

Standing by and supporting employees experiencing mental health problems is not only about retaining a valuable team member – it also sends a message about your business’s values. All employees need to see that their employer lives by its values and treats its people well. Trust and integrity are key drivers of engagement and organisations that correctly prioritise mental health support will reap the benefits in terms of loyalty and commitment from all employees.

Danni Rush, Chief Customer Officer at Virgin Incentives and Virgin Experience Days