The past 18 months have challenged workplaces in unimaginable ways. Pre-pandemic, mental health was already becoming an increasing focus for employers and employees alike, and the effect of successive lockdowns has only exacerbated the issue. Underlining this point, in 2020 we saw a 50 per cent increase in sign-ups to the mental resilience and wellbeing support schemes we offer to both our employees and customers at Aster.
Many have opened up about their experiences during the pandemic, highlighting how a lack of social contact and uncertainty over the future has impacted working life. It’s been encouraging to see more and more companies proactively addressing the matter; Nike, for example, recently announced that it is to close its offices for a week to give employees time to rest and recover, to “put mental health above productivity”.
Such measures can benefit employees and act as a useful call to action to encourage other companies to take similar steps. It’s key, though, that these improvements to workplace culture aren’t just a knee-jerk response to the pandemic, but permanently incorporated into an organisation’s offer.
Embedding support into working life
A recent report from care specialist Koa Health found that more than two in five (43 per cent) of HR managers feel that mental health is still not recognised as a priority in their organisation, while a small number of companies are even planning to reduce mental health support after employees return to the office. Withdrawing support at this time would prove hugely detrimental both to businesses and their employees. Instead, HR managers must see mental health support as an integral part of working life.
For example, whereas Nike’s week-long holiday may provide staff with a welcome break, a recent study by mental health charity Learn to Live found that 62 per cent of workers still worry their bosses would judge them for taking time off for mental health. Instead of granting staff with a one-off reprieve, companies would benefit from encouraging employees to take a break when it best suits them. Organisations need to try and create a workplace culture where staff feel comfortable opening up about their challenges and can work to address them with the support of their colleagues. For example, at Aster, we’ve rethought traditional team structures and introduced principles such as flexible leave. Employees have the freedom and trust to manage their work/life blend in doing their very best work, while balancing the needs of the business with their other commitments.
HR managers must also ensure that the policies they introduce are sustainable and can grow as needs evolve over time. Our people work in a range of roles, both desk-based and out in our communities, which is why it was important throughout the pandemic to use a blended approach to mental health and wellbeing support – from personal phone calls to online webinars and training to downloadable resources. Yet it’s also worth noting that for many, the return to the office will seem just as daunting as lockdown. This is why we’ve developed new support initiatives to complement our existing offering and provide reassurance for those who are feeling anxious about returning.
‘Walk Through and Talk Through’ sessions highlight how we’ve adapted our offices to post-pandemic working and ‘happier at a distance’ lanyards for colleagues who’d prefer to remain socially distanced. We’re also not saying people have to work a set amount of time in any particular location – they can choose what works best for them, their team and our customers. This is to ensure everyone feels comfortable, regardless of how they choose to work going forward.
Enacting real change
Businesses must also make sure they are constantly adapting and improving their support offering in a way that best suits employees. Implementing and embedding policy is a critical first step, but by failing to measure a policy’s performance and gauge whether it is having a real impact on workplace culture, employers are doing little more than ticking boxes.
Organisations have a duty to support employees through times of crisis, but poor mental health can also severely affect productivity and performance. Failure to ensure the effectiveness of a support policy can be short-sighted.
With more than 1,450 people working across a range of roles, maintaining a constant open dialogue with our people, so we can see what really works for them and amend our approach accordingly is vital.
We have 140 trained mental health first aiders across our business who support their peers, and have rolled out a successful menopause support programme designed to normalise conversation around the topic to help drive an inclusive culture. Building on this already strong focus on mental health support, during the past 18 months we have introduced a range of mechanisms to help our employees cope with the pressures of the pandemic. From the evolution of true flexible working to the in-house production of podcasts focusing on men’s mental health, we regularly check in with colleagues to identify what new initiatives could best help them. We also offer collaboration calls through which colleagues can share their concerns with our most senior leaders, and drive change directly through dialogue with the highest level.
As a direct result of this feedback, over the past year we have developed a host of initiatives including our new dedicated wellbeing programme, ‘Reconnect and Rebalance’, which provides colleagues with the tools and resources to re-engage with each other face-to-face and get used to balancing office and home working again. So far, it’s working – 84 per cent of colleagues agreed in our recent survey that we care about their mental health and wellbeing.
Mental health and wellbeing support should form a vital pillar of every company’s HR offering not just in the immediate wake of the pandemic, but in the years to come as well. The progress that has been made to shine a light on the importance of supporting good mental health in the workplace is commendable and bodes well for the future. But a failure to follow through by embedding this change and ensuring its effectiveness would be a waste of a golden opportunity.
Rachel Credidio is group people and transformation director at Aster Group