Why employers should take care of their workers’ mental wellbeing

Firms that leave mental health care to the individuals is not only myopic in strategy, but it clearly signals they do not care about their employees’ wellbeing, says Alex Hattingh

It’s no secret that the last year has been challenging. No one has come through Covid-19 unscathed, and while the pandemic and lockdown measures may currently be slowly becoming a thing of the past, the threat remains very real.

Unsurprisingly, Covid-19 has taken its toll on people’s mental health and stress. A cross-sectional UK study by Cambridge University confirms this. 

Depression during the pandemic was similar to pre-pandemic levels, but those experiencing anxiety had almost doubled to 24 per cent compared to a pre-pandemic level of 13 per cent. In both studies, anxiety and depression during the pandemic was greater in younger people, women, those with pre-existing mental or physical health conditions and individuals in socioeconomic adversity – even when controlling for pre-pandemic anxiety and depression.

The conclusion of the study? People are at elevated risk of depression and anxiety during and after the pandemic. But how does this affect employers? It is now the responsibility of the employer to plan current mental health provisions and for long-term impact beyond this pandemic.

In a recent survey on the impact of Covid-19 on mental health in the workplace, Employment Hero uncovered that 48 per cent of employers surveyed said they did not have budgets available to help support their employees’ mental health, while 30 per cent said they do not know how to support mental wellbeing.

When questioned, 44 per cent of employees believe the stigma around mental health is something to worry about in the workplace and 46 per cent are concerned about their own mental wellbeing. 

More worryingly, our research found that only 48 per cent of employees in the UK agree that their organisation was supportive of mental health and 46 per cent of reported that their workplace did not have the tools to measure mental health. 

Maybe these numbers aren’t that surprising – mental health has not been a top priority for many businesses pre-Covid. However, what is unexpected is that understanding among employers about the detrimental effects of Covid hasn’t increased as much as we’d hoped.

Post-lockdown blues are a real problem, and, as the 2021 World Happiness Report pointed out: “The mental health consequences of worries resulting from how the pandemic affects an individual's financial situation, both in the short and the long run ... will likely differ according to socioeconomic position ... which countries, regions, or sectors individuals live and work in, and the way in which their economies and economic policies are affected.”

While it may seem expensive to dedicate more time, resources and money to providing an additionally safe workspace, in the long run, kindness always pays off.

It has been well documented that employees who are mentally healthy can better cope with stress, take less sick days, are able to tackle more complex tasks, as well as apply creativity and an innovative mindset to the tasks they are given

In addition, happy employees – just like unhappy ones – tend to talk about their workplace, and if they like how they’re being treated then they’ll make sure everyone knows it. This is a fantastic (and free) recruitment strategy, and will pay dividends for years.

It is important employers provide ‘total employment care’ and listen to their employees, offering mental health support where possible. Do not make assumptions about employees' mental health and ensure that resources are put in place to help support employees when they are in the workplace.

Making remote mental health support available is something all employers should be preparing for. Invest in the tools that keep both productivity and communication up, and don’t overlook an incredibly talented workforce just because of their personal health choices.

An employer who leaves mental health care purely to the individuals is not only myopic in strategy, but clearly signals they value a culture that does not encourage accountability and care for their employees’ wellbeing.

Alex Hattingh is chief people officer at people-management platform Employment Hero