With the cost of living crisis showing no signs of abating, many people may be experiencing feelings of overwhelm and exhaustion as they consider how they will meet rising energy and food prices, and higher interest rates on mortgages and loans. For people living with mental illness, this may create additional feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, and many employers may be questioning what they can realistically do to support their hard-pressed workers at this time.
While many larger employers are looking at introducing some form of financial support, for smaller businesses that are struggling with rising costs themselves this may not be a realistic option. And it is important for all employers to realise that financial help, although much needed, may not resolve all the issues that employees are facing right now. Good mental health support must also be a priority in all workplaces.
Spotting the signs
Line managers are on the frontline when it comes to spotting the signs that workers may be struggling. To begin with, line managers need to be on the lookout for uncharacteristic behaviour such as irritability or tears, or refusing to turn on cameras during online meetings. Workers might be asking for extra hours or appearing more tired, missing deadlines or making more mistakes.
As the days get colder, employees might want to come into the office more to save on heating costs or, conversely, they might try to save fuel and travel costs by asking to work from home. Employees might also ask to opt out of contributory pension schemes so they have more money in their pay packet.
Employers should also look out for employees who have been off sick or working part time, who are now asking to return to work early or increase their hours. This might well include people with long Covid. Business Disability Forum (BDF) has created several free resources to help employers and line managers recognise when someone may be struggling and to have the confidence to ask the difficult questions.
If spotting signs that something might be amiss is the first step, the second is to talk to employees about their requests or behaviour and the reasons for them. These are not always comfortable conversations for either the manager or the worker, so employers should offer training to managers on how to have sensitive conversations.
As well as one-to-one conversations between managers and team members, larger meetings where people get to talk about how they are feeling can be helpful and a relief for some. At BDF, we have recently had impromptu conversations about grief and loss via Teams meetings. Almost everyone had a story about loss and was grieving for loved ones or a lost way of life or opportunity. We commented on how unexpectedly emotional we felt on the call.
When money is tight, socialising is often the first cost cut and with that comes a loss of friendships and loneliness. Social isolation and loneliness have been linked to higher risks of various physical and mental health conditions.
Providing regular opportunities to socialise and talk can be a lifeline for employees struggling with their mental health. Online meetings are cheap and easy to attend but going into the workplace may provide a much-needed socialising opportunity for some.
Side hustles have long been common among younger employees who need to make extra money, but additional jobs in time off might now be contemplated by other workers too if their contracts permit (and sometimes where they don’t), often leading to exhaustion.
Practical support such as surgeries to help employees claim all the benefits to which they could be entitled might help. An estimated £15bn in benefits goes unclaimed every year, ranging from council tax discounts to universal credit and working tax credit.
Less immediate but also appreciated by many tired workers are sessions on how to improve sleep and tips on buying and cooking cheap meals and where to get discount codes for supermarkets. Small actions perhaps for the scale of the crisis, but sometimes knowing that your employer has seen and understood your challenges can go a long way.
Bela Gor is head of content at Business Disability Forum