Mental Health Awareness Week 2021: Keep the conversation going

For Mental Health Awareness Week 20021, Business Reporter talked to a number of leading experts to get their insights.

Lockdowns, remote working, mounting economic uncertainty and fear of the virus: the events of the past year have had a far-reaching impact on our mental health as a nation. Even the easing of restrictions has become worry-inducing for many after a year of isolation.

However, whilst compounding pressures have left many struggling, they have also importantly pushed the topic of mental health to the forefront, encouraging organisations to reflect on if they are doing enough to support employees. As things slowly return to (new) normal, it is paramount that these conversations continue – and Mental Health Awareness Week provides the perfect opportunity to do just that.

Launched 21 years ago by the Mental Health Foundation, it aims to raise awareness of mental health issues and action change. In light of the week, Business Reporter spoke to six industry experts about how learnings from the last year can help employers bolster mental health support – through this challenging time and beyond.

Mounting stress

According to the ONS, those working from home during 2020 did on average six hours unpaid overtime per week, with 74 per cent of UK adults feeling so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.

“Social distancing and not physically seeing and meeting colleagues as well as loved ones will have also taken its toll on most people,” said Agata Nowakowska, AVP EMEA at Skillsoft. “It’s mentally and physically exhausting, and undoubtedly causing unwanted stress on employees.

“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.”

Manage expectations

Research from Trust Radius suggests that 57% of women in tech feel burned out at work this year, compared to 36% of men. Sara Hamilton, Deputy Director of Product and Managed Services at Mango Solutions considers how women especially are vulnerable to burnout at work.

“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. 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.”

Kathryn Barnes, Employment Counsel EMEA at Globalization Partners agrees that it is important that employers encourage employees to be compassionate to themselves, “helping to manage their own (often unrealistic) expectations of what can and needs to be done.”

She continues, “it is crucial that employers 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.

The future is hybrid: mental health support must be too

Mental Health Awareness Week is a timely memo for organisations as they prepare to reimagine the world of work. “Employers will need to ensure their people are appropriately equipped to deal with the real-life demands of long-term remote working as well as creating a hybrid workplace,” highlights Kleopatra Kivrakidou, Channel Marketing Manager EMEA at Ergotron.

“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.

“With UK organisations looking to put remote hybrid working opportunities permanently on the workplace agenda, providing appropriate desks and seating that preserve spinal health and monitor arms that make it easier for people to position screens in ways that reduce eye and neck strain will be key to preserving the wellbeing of employees for the long term.”

Martin Taylor, Deputy CEO at Content Guru, adds that while the move to flexible working has been a largely positive one for his organisation, most businesses are now at the point where they could do with being together more.

“Having 20 or 30 colleagues meeting over Zoom is just not the same as those individuals coming together in a room, buzzing on caffeine and writing all over the glass walls! What is important now is that business leaders recognise the value that flexible working patterns have offered employees over the last year. 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.”

Focus on the fun

“Looking back to the start of the pandemic and the first worldwide lockdown, the transition from office to remote was swift and abrupt,” reflects Richard Hamaker, HR Business Partner at Leaseweb Global. He believes that in times of crisis, the number one thing you should do is stay in touch.

“At Leaseweb we kept this top of mind, and started regularly calling and checking in with our staff, including inviting them to chat, not via Zoom or Teams, but by walking on the phone, and supporting them through the change process. We introduced workshops about mindset, and had regular conversations with those who started to indicate that they were having a difficult time. During such challenging times, the feeling that somebody is there for you is the most important and only thing you can do.”

“It’s also really important to focus on the fun, he concludes. “Laughing is good for engagement, it tickles the brain, and it’s a great energiser. Have a funny dance moment, make a joke, or share stories. At our company we set up a Survival Team for sharing stories, making fun videos and generally creating a safe space where people feel that they belong and are supported. At the close of each of his shows, Jerry Springer always reminded his audience to ‘take care of yourself, and each other.’ And that’s how it should be.”

© Business Reporter 2021

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