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Working to manage mental health

While businesses work through the impact of the pandemic and Brexit, the mental health of staff should form a major element of their wider strategy.

Working to manage mental health
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  • Michelle Perry
  • April 13, 2021
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Radical upheaval to our daily lives, as a result of efforts to contain and slow down the spread of coronavirus, has led to a deterioration in people’s mental health. The impact is such that the World Health Organization (WHO) has identified mental health as “an integral component of the Covid-19 response”.

Tackling mental health issues in the workplace, however, was already a focus for campaigners long before the world was brought to its knees by the pandemic. According to research by Mind, the mental health charity, more than one in five (21%) said that they had called in sick to avoid work when asked how workplace stress had affected them, while 42% had considered resigning because of workplace stress. As many as 300,000 people lose their jobs each year because of long-term mental health problems.

Healthy and productive

Small businesses, firms and their clients are under unparalleled pressures due to Covid-19 and the impact of Brexit. But ensuring the wellbeing of staff during these challenging times should form an integral part of their wider strategy. Crucially, it makes commercial sense too.

Without productive staff, an organisation will be unable to overcome the challenges ahead and seek new business opportunities. Better mental health at work also improves the bottom line. Research by Mind found that poor mental health costs UK employers up to e42bn each year.

But when you have few resources, how can you ensure a safe and well-balanced workplace where everyone prospers and feels able to talk about mental health issues? It’s certainly not easy, but starting the conversation doesn’t have to be difficult, Mind says.

Given the circumstances we are living in, mental health charities and organisations have stepped up efforts to offer free resources and reductions in online courses to help smaller businesses. In 2017 the government-commissioned independent Stevenson/Farmer review of mental health and employers, called ‘Thriving at work’, set out core standards for workplace mental health designed to be “tailored to suit a variety of workplaces and be implemented by even the smallest employers”.

In 2019, UK businesses and organisations joined forces with mental health charities and non-governmental organisations to advance the commitment to improving mental health care in the workplace and created an online portal jam-packed with practical resources for businesses of all sizes. ‘The Commitment’ (mentalhealthatwork.org.uk/commitment) “seeks to end that confusion promoting and sharing best practice that can be activated among employers at all levels”.

Setting a health strategy

Mental health in the workplace has traditionally been approached from a reactive, case-by-case basis – or at worst, ignored. David Gormer, founder of Square Mile Accounting, says that strategy is key, involving all your people: “Resources are available to all size firms online nowadays. Our approach, I’d love to say it was a selfless act, but it’s tough for management too and I think a joined-up approach is required.”

This approach, he says, should start with the basic elements of day-to- day working in order to ensure staff have “a low friction” workplace, which involves ensuring staff have the right tools and processes to do their jobs and the company has a clear vision and purpose.

Lucy Cohen, founder of Bridgend- based Mazuma Accountants, says the impact of one or two staff being on long-term sick can have a knock-on effect for the mental health of the other team members. Since 2018, Mazuma has off ered its 32-strong team free counselling via external HR provider Peninsula.

“I felt that was important. It was a priority for us,” she says. And instead of having an office Christmas party in 2020 due to Covid-19 restrictions, Cohen invested the money the firm would have spent on the party into staff subscriptions to Perkbox, an employee wellbeing platform, which offers free GP prescriptions.

Cohen, an ex-power lifter, has long worked to manage her physical and mental health, having suffered with anxiety for years. However, last year, she suffered a bout of depression.

“I’m open about my mental health and think that we should treat our brain the same way as any other part of our bodies,” says Cohen.

“My experience isn’t unique but I’m happy to talk about it. We’re not at the point where we can talk openly with colleagues and clients about mental health but I want to get to that point,” she says (turn to page 23 for more of Cohen’s thoughts).

Checking in

Flexibility is critical for mental wellbeing at work, particularly in these difficult times. During the pandemic, Square Mile’s flexible working policy was extended to all team members, having previously been available only to senior staff. The policy will remain in place for all staff once the pandemic is over, David Gormer says, because he hasn’t seen productivity fall.

He also says that daily and weekly check-ins are vital, and that time has to be available for “those one-to-one empathetic conversations to understand what’s happening in people’s lives”.

Mazuma also introduced greater flexibility by allowing staff to work flexibly during the day to suit their needs. This trust in staff has worked well for the fi rm, Lucy Cohen adds.

David Gormer has enlisted an external HR consultant to ensure his firm had the right structure in place for a growing business with 12 full-time staff members, all currently working from home. Part of that programme is a subscription to Perkbox, which provides one-on-one counselling sessions.

Facing up to stress

Post-pandemic, Square Mile also plans to set up a co-working office for staff members who want the option to work in an office. The hybrid model will also enable management to check in with staff face-to-face to gauge their mental wellbeing.

“Collaboration and face-to-face relationship building is important, as is the right to choose how you work. The management team will spend one or two days a week at the office to build that team culture,” says Gormer.

At Mazuma, Lucy Cohen has an open-door policy to allow staff to speak openly with their line managers. “That does work, as long as you have well trained management who don’t just accept the response often given that ‘I’m fine’, when it’s clear that staff might not be coping well. If you know your staff then you know when someone is behaving differently.”

Often, Cohen says, the ability to “unburden yourself” just by talking to your line manager may be enough. But she suggests the basic fi rst step an employer should take is reviewing business processes and systems (turn to page 34 for wellbeing policy advice). “If there is no clear policy for mental wellbeing, write one and share it with all staff. Understand what good mental health looks like and see if that’s reflected in your organisation. And make sure management have the training they need to recognise the warning signs and have the tools to communicate well with staff,” she says.

Other practical tips include having a no email policy between certain hours. Simply acknowledging the pressure on staff and showing a willingness to talk will create a culture of trust for staff and management.


Michelle Perry is a freelance journalist

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