What we’ve learned about mental health from a year in a global pandemic

18 Mar 2021 By Louise Abbs

The Covid crisis has changed how we manage psychological wellbeing and given rise to five trends that are here to stay, says Louise Abbs

One year since coronavirus first stopped UK society in its tracks, with people first told to work from home on 18 March 2020, the pandemic has transformed our lives in ways that have impacted negatively on the mental health of nearly half (49 per cent) of the population, according to research from Public Health England.

Loneliness, missing friends and family, employment worries and uncertainty about the future are just some of the reasons significant numbers of people are experiencing more anxiety (46 per cent), stress (44 per cent), sleep problems (34 per cent) and low mood (46 per cent). Yet it’s precisely because of this impact that more employers than ever are prioritising mental health, which has led to the emergence of five trends that are likely to be around for some time:

Managing emotions in the workplace

Before the pandemic, our lives were full of things we thought made us happy. Suddenly not being able to go out and meet people or buy things put the rest of our lives, in particular our jobs and the quality of our relationships, under a microscope, causing divorces to spike and one in three people to consider finding a new job.

People have had to confront their life choices and deal with uncomfortable feelings in bucketloads. They’ve been forced to learn how to sit with difficult emotions from which they might once have sought to distract themselves. In response, managers have had to become much better at acknowledging emotions and asking people how they are or what help they might need, as well as connecting them to support services, such as employee assistance programmes.

Allowing people to adapt their day

After decades of people enduring long commutes and rigid working hours that made it difficult for them to do the school run, take a long lunch break to exercise or enjoy a hobby, the rules about how or when we work were thrown into disarray. Three-quarters of employers (75 per cent) invited staff to make changes to their working patterns to cope with the new normal.

With almost two-thirds (61 per cent) of employees saying they would like to continue working from home in some capacity, according to a YouGov survey, the mental health benefits of this are not to be overlooked. Many employers say they anticipate a major shift away from the traditional workplace, even when social distancing is no longer mandatory.

Basing mental health support on actual needs

With anxiety levels soaring during the pandemic, making sure that people felt OK about not feeling OK was an important part of ‘normalising’ the anxiety that everyone was experiencing. Staging online webinars was just one of several important preventative measures taken by many employers.

Others had to put new solutions in place to deal with the burnout and fatigue experienced by working parents, or provide trauma support for frontline workers and other people exposed to death during the pandemic. All of which highlighted the importance of devising wellbeing strategies and support services based on what employees actually needed.

Building work around human needs

If there was one silver lining to the pandemic, it was the way it forced businesses to think outside the box after years of not questioning the impact of outdated working patterns on our physical and emotional health. From the rise in home working to the extra emphasis on empowering workers to adapt their hours around needs, employers have shown themselves to be incredibly creative.

There is now the opportunity to further rebuild the workplace around human needs. For example, instead of just putting people’s workplaces online, so they can access it anywhere, thought can now be put into how to do this in a way that facilitates positive human interaction, protects people’s need to disconnect from work and boosts team working.

Acting on the data

The days of organisations taking stock of how people are feeling once every few years with an engagement survey are also at an end. With so much uncertainty and the world around us changing so rapidly, pulse surveys and understanding how people are feeling right now have become much more important.

The link between wellbeing and productivity has never been clearer, meaning employers with processes in place for collecting data on factors undermining the health and ability of their people to perform stand a much greater chance of being able to quickly but sustainably rectify any issues they identify. Not to mention optimise their wellbeing spend on areas that will have the biggest impact and make the most positive difference.

Louise Abbs is managing director of PAM Wellbeing

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