HR and leadership teams are faced with supporting colleagues during an unprecedented phase of change in the workplace. At the same time, the obligation for organisations to safeguard the mental well-being of all staff has never been greater.
There is a plethora of research on the mental health impact of Covid-19. The BUPA Workplace Wellbeing Census 2021 showed that the impact in our workplaces has been significant, including some positive impacts which now need to be matched for employees who have returned to office or hybrid working. There are also reports that burnout and stress have increased since the relaxation of pandemic restrictions.
The current challenge to mental well-being
Some staff may have pre-existing mental health needs. Some have been impacted directly by the pandemic. Others are experiencing overwhelm from the pace of change and/or uncertainty about the future landscape of their ‘work world’.
It’s worth noting that staff at all levels are needing to adjust, recalibrate and to absorb a lot of learning. Many have already met the challenge of quickly developing new tech and online skills. For some the next challenge is integrating on-site and remote working in emerging ‘hybrid’ models. That’s a lot to ask of anyone, including senior leadership teams. Mental health impacts are being seen at all levels.
Aligning business and individual needs
In this context, HR and management teams will want to take careful steps in aligning the needs of the business and those of the individual staff member.
There is much best practice guidance available to employers on managing change in current circumstances. This comprehensive guide from the CIPD (October 2021) provides advice on supporting employees’ mental health as the course of the pandemic and recovery from it continues. It ends with a plea for people professionals to look after their own wellbeing while supporting others.
The need to show empathy and patience towards staff is a common theme in much of the advice. However, the tendency is often to assume that everyone is ‘swimming in the same direction’. Where one or more staff members is stuck or struggling to ‘keep afloat’ in adjusting to the new context, more specialised attention may be called for to safeguard their mental wellbeing.
Resources for staff mental well-being
The renewed focus on mental well-being at work has brought a range of new resources.
At one end of the scale, the pandemic has seen a marked advance in the ‘digital therapy’ landscape. Wellbeing tools such as meditation apps, online consultation services and mental health chatbots such as Woebot mean that a wider range of employers can now offer independent emotional support for their employees. Our Frontline is a home-grown example providing 24/7 support for key workers.
Employers can also signpost staff to new practical advice from trusted sources. Among these, Mind’s website has helpful pages with tips on coping with aspects of the pandemic. Mental Health at Work has a series of topical toolkits, including some aimed at frontline staff. The CIPD’s latest resources include ‘Responding to Suicide Risk in the Workplace’ (which includes a factsheet for line managers).
Dealing with change-related conflict where there is a mental health need
What if there is an ongoing disagreement about returning to the workplace involving an individual with mental health needs? Or if there are concerns about their compliance with new ‘rules’? Or about behaviours or productivity in the new environment?
People often have worries about broaching difficult issues like these with a colleague known to have a common mental health condition such as anxiety or depression. They fear making matters worse. Equally, a colleague may not be aware of a mental health condition and not understand what appears to be an ‘over-reaction’.
Expertise in conflict resolution is a resource worth considering here. A recent Personnel Today article recognises the importance of these skills in the current context.
swift, tailored solutions
Employers can offer their staff the chance to work together one-to-one, supported by a neutral third-party, to create tailored and workable solutions to problems. Acting quickly is key to limiting the additional stress that comes with conflict.
When people feel ‘safe’ to express their underlying concerns and needs (whether as an individual or for the organisation) it is easier to find a route out of a tricky conflict. We find that the strong, empathetic support experienced mediators provide to every participant in these situations can be enormously helpful in achieving change. As is the ability to structure the process to meet their needs.
New workplace policies, about working patterns or safety for example, may lead to tensions within teams. These situations can also benefit from the input of conflict resolution skills. Where some employees feel more vulnerable than others, a ‘one size fits all’ approach is unlikely to work. Providing a process for everyone in the group to feel heard will strengthen empathy and cohesion.
Our experience is that giving people the chance to address a problem together, creates a sense of ownership, even pride, in the outcome. This makes it more likely to be sustained.
Additionally, when taking part in mediation people discover new models for constructive communication. They can use these in future to benefit the mental well-being of others in the team dealing with change.
Feel free to call us to talk through whether mediation is appropriate for a particular situation. We are enthusiastic advocates of mediation when the circumstances are suitable.