Mental health initiatives must reach beyond the ‘worried well’

Employers mustn’t just focus on those feeling anxious, but also the millions of people now sinking into despair, says Louise Abbs

Since the start of the pandemic, the mental health of the workforce has deteriorated significantly. More than one in five people (22 per cent) with no prior experience of mental health issues say their mental health is now poor or very poor, according to Mind. 

Many people find themselves crying all the time and feeling angry and upset on a daily basis, and are often left wondering what’s wrong with them. Some might try to reassure themselves that others have it much worse and this can lead to a reluctance to access beneficial support services such as employee assistance programmes, perhaps because of a misguided belief that they’re only for people who are really in crisis or because of concerns about confidentiality.

The result is that mental health initiatives aimed at the ‘worried well’ – people who are stressed and anxious but basically coping and want to learn more about how to continue coping – aren’t enough to support everyone. Valuable initiatives like one-off training or awareness sessions and access to counselling can be really beneficial but, unless they are backed up with something to catch employees when they start to fall, many people will continue to experience poor mental health.

This second lockdown is set to make things worse, as many people who were at least going outside once a day for their hour of exercise, or going for a socially distanced walk with a friend, are no longer doing even this, because of the colder, shorter days. Managers therefore have a vital role to play when it comes to supporting the mental health and resilience of their teams, by regularly checking in with their employees to not only talk work, but also to find out how they’re coping. It is useful to ask open questions such as: ‘How are you taking care of yourself?’ ‘How much interaction are you still enjoying with other people?’ ‘Is anything making you feel overwhelmed?’

Managers must also be mindful of the signs that an employee is entering into a state of despair by recognising when someone is ‘out of sorts’, perhaps because of an emotional outburst, or because they have become increasingly withdrawn, forgetful or error prone. It can also be helpful for managers to acknowledge and talk about their own emotions; for example, by admitting: ‘I’ve had a tough week this week, this and that happened, but I’m still here for everyone if you need to talk.’

This might seem intrusive or feel uncomfortable, because most managers would much rather have a conversation about what needs to be done this week, than explore the emotional state of their team. Yet by shifting the focus on to the person rather than the job, the employee can feel sufficiently supported, listened to and valued so they will actually be more able to work effectively and more likely to perform well.

The overall aim is to create a psychologically safe environment (be it onsite or remote), where employees feel secure talking about how they’re coping and the challenges affecting their mental health; for example, feeling sad that they can’t use the gym anymore because exercising was their way of unwinding after work, or that their child’s class has been sent home to isolate, bringing back the pressures of having to juggle work and homeschooling.

If someone is really struggling, managers should make sure they’re fully aware of all the mental health support services in place, especially any counselling services with a manager referral scheme, so the manager can suggest they think they’d benefit from talking to a counsellor to offload and learn some coping strategies.

This sort of proactive approach is particularly important for employees who have just started to sink because, once someone starts to feel hopeless or worthless, their ability to reach out for help is greatly reduced. Yet even one hour spent talking to a counsellor can help them to get back inside their personal ‘window of tolerance’ so they feel better able to cope.

Louise Abbs is managing director of PAM Wellbeing