Businesses have a key role to play in tackling the impending mental health crisis

28 Jan 2021 By Sarah Stanton and Alan Rankin

With the pandemic still going strong, it’s crucial employers support their staff, whether through offering flexible working, refreshing wellbeing policies or organising fun activities, say Sarah Stanton and Alan Rankin

This year, we are in the midst of a January blues like no other. Many people are feeling new levels of anxiety as we once again try to adjust to the continually changing rules in these difficult times. Mental health is at the forefront of people’s mind across the country for numerous reasons, whether it’s having to juggle work with homeschooling and caring responsibilities or living in isolation – whatever the circumstances people are adapting to, it’s all during these dark and cold winter days.

Pre-pandemic, one in four people experienced mental health problems of some kind each year in England. The current situation is likely to exacerbate any issues, which could have long-term implications on the wellbeing of the UK workforce. 

It’s important to recognise that people will be experiencing the impact of this challenging period in different ways. And so, businesses have a critical role to play in providing additional support to their employees, helping them feel able to speak up and seek help if they need it. Whether that’s embedding new practices into workplace culture, working with other organisations to enhance the tools available to everyone, or identifying ways to help people spot the signs if their colleagues and teams are struggling – there’s plenty we can all be doing to support the mental health of those around us.

It could be simple things like regular check-ins, team catch-ups and activities, and reminding your workforce of the support available. These actions encourage people to have regular informal conversations, hear about their colleagues' lives and ensure people aren’t feeling alone and that they have a support network they can rely on. 

However, as we look ahead to the next few months of uncertainty, there are several other steps employers can consider that can support their workforce as a whole and also individuals in a more tailored way to reflect the hugely varied circumstances people are facing. 

Immediate actions

Implementing policies on working practices that focus on wellbeing can help create a collective feeling that everyone is muddling through day-to-day life and can support each other. Protecting lunch hours and afternoons in the working week with a ‘no meetings’ policy or setting aside time for people to focus on their mental or physical health can have a positive impact by encouraging individuals to take time for themselves away from work. 

At National Grid, we’ve found that collating regular feedback from our people to understand how they’re coping has been crucial for identifying immediate actions that can be taken, such as reducing hours to help with childcare, implementing flexible-working arrangements and adjusting resources within teams in response to pressure points. 

Helping colleagues spot the signs

Helping colleagues and teams spot the signs and making them aware of the support available so they signpost people to the right help is vital as well. There isn’t one tactic for this but a number of routes that can be considered. This can include implementing mental health training packages with helpful tools and techniques for employees and managers to build their personal resilience and support others with theirs, or signing your business up to the Mental Health at Work Commitment, which promotes an open culture around mental health in the workplace. There are different options that will resonate with different organisations. Internal communications and e-newsletters, screensavers, town halls – all of these platforms can go a long way to increase awareness of mental health and help your employees better understand the issues that exist.

Working with other organisations

It can be difficult to know where to start so partnering with external organisations can be really important. Getting external expertise for toolkits and initiatives can help ensure they are designed in an accessible way that is relevant for different people. We’ve worked with Business in the Community to develop resources and toolkits for tackling some of the serious issues that have seen a significant increase during the pandemic, in particular suicide prevention and helping those impacted by domestic abuse. They aim to empower businesses and their people to be aware of the signs and be able to take steps that can have a real impact on colleagues, friends and family who are struggling. 

Revisiting existing policies

Efforts to support wellbeing have been taking place for a while and it’s important to note that this isn’t about overhauling what you’ve done already, but looking at areas that could be updated or enhanced for what’s happening right now. Reviewing existing employee assistance programmes to, for example, offer access to counselling sessions, with further provisions for employee family members in times of bereavement, is just one example of this. 

Trying to lift the mood

Alternatively, ideas that can give teams a boost through a mix of advice, activity and fun could be an approach that works for your organisation. At National Grid, we ran our first Wellbeing Festival that aimed to give wellness a concentrated uplift across the business, relieving the monotony of life, connecting colleagues and reiterating the importance of health – from yoga and fitness classes to music sessions, competitions and even a comedy night. There was something for everyone, regardless of age, lifestyle, work or family circumstances. Moods need lifting now more than ever, and we’re running it again this month. 

We all have a part to play in protecting the mental wellbeing of ourselves and those around us. However, it’s businesses and employers that are in the best position to lead by example and ramp up action that could have a meaningful impact on safeguarding employee health – this will be critical to the long-term wellbeing of the UK’s workforce.  

Sarah Stanton is UK HR director and Alan Rankin is head of safety, health and sustainability at National Grid

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