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A year ago, in a world pre-Covid I facilitated an HR Forum at TPP on mental health. We discussed the challenges of getting organisational buy in for supporting employee mental wellbeing. These included costs, evidencing returns on investment, the need to upskill managers, a lack of recognition that it was a business issue, and barriers created by organisational culture.
Drawing from a professional perspective of many years in HR I saw organisations manage symptoms rather than look at culture and causes. From a personal experience of supporting people close to me, I have witnessed the impact on lives of poor mental health.
The World Health Organisation defines health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’. There is no health without mental health.
Before the pandemic we were already aware of frightening statistics including one in four of us experiencing some level of mental health issue in any year (Mental Health Taskforce, 2016) and knew we needed to increase understanding of mental ill health and work to reduce the associated stigma and discrimination. During and post the pandemic this has and will be, exacerbated.
There has been extensive media coverage on the effects of the pandemic on people and this has included talking about mental health and ill health. Whether through isolation, physical illness, being a key worker, anxiety about those they care about or related to uncertainty about the future, most people have been affected in some way.
One recent survey found 85% of organisations felt the virus had or would have a negative impact on the mental health of their employees, with 78% noting an increase in conversations about mental health (REBA, July 2020). Whilst, the negative impact is concerning, we can take these conversations as a positive step and make sure they continue.
Organisations are facing huge and multiple challenges, whichever sector or industry, and have to navigate their way through and out of the turmoil of recent months. The acuteness of the need to balance finances with what is best for all stakeholders is heightened. Many organisations say that people are their most important resource – we have seen this clearly recently with the incredible innovation and speed of changes they have made happen, and I am yet to find an organisation that operated effectively without their people!
We need to ensure we keep people at the centre of organisational strategy and supporting their mental health is critical to this. Prof Cary Cooper, speaking at the recent CIPD Festival of Work said ‘pre-crisis wellbeing was beginning to be strategic; I now suspect this will be a board issue in most companies’.
Supporting mental health and developing cultures where people feel safe and able to talk about how they are feeling, to people that are equipped with the skills and awareness to respond will be vital. To achieve this all employees should receive training to increase understanding of mental health and mental illness, supported by the introduction of Mental Health First Aiders across the organisation.
This means it needs to be an organisation wide wellbeing strategy embedded within the business strategy, owned by senior leaders. Not seen as the sole responsibility of HR. This strategy will encompass the organisational values being demonstrated in actions and behaviours, what flexible working options might be available, and how the working environment can be improved. It also means achieving this by working collaboratively with employees all across the organisation, making sure all staff have the necessary skills and knowledge, identifying how to measure success, etc. Plus of course, practical wellbeing programmes.
This strategy should be evidence-based, drawing on business metrics. Not just HR data but consider where employees are experiencing reduced levels of mental wellbeing there is likely to be an impact on productivity and error rates, levels of customer service, a reputational impact of reduced customer experience, and presenteeism.
We should also borrow the learnings of health and social care, making support ‘person centred’, developing approaches that recognise individual needs. This is particularly pertinent as we support anxious employees back to the workplace. This person-centred approach must be done in a way to find solutions that also meets organisational need and we should not underestimate the challenges this may present.
Whatever role we have, within whatever organisation, we each play a part in keeping conversations going and working together to bring about real changes in how we understand mental ill health and support mental wellbeing going forward.
Marion Hewitt, FCIPD, is an award confidence and credibility coach for HR professionals (and others), a positive psychology practitioner, and accredited Mental Health First Aid Trainer with MHFA England. Her business Protea Solutions works with organisations to ‘unleash the power of their people’.