Tom Keya is a lawyer, business development consultant and analyst with an interest in advocating for better mental health support in the workplace.

Throughout my career I have always treated mental health on a par with physical health. They are part of the same whole, and without both working together, it becomes impossible for employees to manage their own wellbeing.

Within the workplace, business leaders and employers have a duty of care towards their employees. By focusing on the mental health of team members and incorporating specific steps within the workplace to help manage it, everyone benefits.

Dealing with mental health in the workplace is now crucial

There is a crucial difference between stress and mental health. And in the workplace, it’s important to get the message right. Stress management alone is not enough. Stress is, after all, a normal part of life. We cannot live or progress without a certain level of stress. It can be a motivator and often spurs us on to new heights.

Dealing with stress so that it doesn’t affect your physical health is obviously important. But mental health issues are a whole different ball game. Anxiety and depression are destructive in every way. They can have catastrophic effects on people’s lives, and this includes how they perform in the workplace.

Mental health and stress management in the workplace have been growing as priorities for employers over the last 10 years. The pandemic, however, has catapulted mental health issues up to another level. According to the Stress Management Society, new research shows that 65% of people in the UK have become noticeably more stressed since COVID-19 restrictions began.

Further research, this time from mental health charity Mind, shows that more than half of UK adults have experienced deterioration in their mental health since March 2020. Experts at the charity predict that the ramifications of the pandemic will leave a lasting legacy for millions of people in terms of their mental health. Some even call it another pandemic, and at the moment one that is going largely unnoticed.

The pandemic has negatively impacted our collective mental health

Worryingly, the Mind report also shows that increasing numbers of people are using unhealthy coping mechanisms. These include over or under eating, illegal drugs or too much alcohol, all of which impact all aspects of our health. Mental health issues were a challenge for business leaders before COVID-19 arrived, but there’s no doubt that the pandemic has made it much worse.

Restrictions imposed by Governments all around the world have exacerbated already existing mental health issues. It is taking a massive toll on people’s physical, social, financial and mental health. People have been forced into unprecedented situations since March 2020. From being forced to work from home in possibly limited space to being confined to the indoors for extended periods of time, the pandemic is impacting everyone.

Working parents have had to somehow balance working from home with educating their children. Other workers have had to deal with caring for elderly parents, looking after people who are shielding and pitching in to community efforts to try to manage the worst impact of the pandemic.

Remote working itself has led to millions of people feeling more isolated and missing the social interaction of the workspace. Some people cope with this well through Gawdo, while others find their mental health deteriorating enormously. Employers and business leaders have to take the initiative to help employees as much as possible, both now and in the future as the world eases itself back into a more normal working pattern.

9 steps employers can take right now to support employees

As some countries look ahead to opening up in 2021, others are still struggling with the virus. But for the UK, the US, countries in the Middle East and in Asia, it’s time to review the way they deal with mental health problems.

Mental and physical health are closely interlinked. This should be reflected in a company’s wellbeing strategy. In past management roles, I have implemented periods of sport and physical activity during working hours, to encourage employees of the importance of maintaining their mental health.

There are various benefits and supportive actions employers can offer their employees. These vary across a wide spectrum and range from improving the everyday to offering support when it is needed most. For example, managing absences with sensitivity, flexibility and tact will encourage employees to be honest about any times of difficulty they may be experiencing.

Here are 7 tips for managers and business leaders to help manage employee mental health as they move out of lockdown.

  1. Ask employees what they need

The first step is always to engage with your staff. Ask them what they need. You can do this through committees, meetings, one on ones, focus groups, surveys. It depends on the size of the business and scope of your employees, but it’s vital to engage directly with them.

  • Analyse benefits and support already in place

Look at what you currently offer in terms of support and benefits, including sickness policy, insurance benefits, any value-added benefits and other support services that might be attached to these. Make sure you’re fully utilising everything within these policies, and if you’re not put them in place.

  • Proactively promote what there is to support employees

Awareness and accessibility are vitally important. Your employees need to know what’s on offer, who they need to speak to, how they should come forward and that they are encouraged to do so. Employees need to know that there are options if they need help.

  • Replace face-to-face with digital solutions

Provide online versions of support that was previously face-to-face. This could include access to counsellors or managers to talk things through, or to encourage employees to communicate. If digital solutions can’t be used due to the nature of the work involved, then disseminate information through the management cascade system.

  • Connect people with each other

At the moment this is virtual, but hopefully soon it will be in person. Millions of people have been isolated and working remotely for a long time. Encourage socialising, whether online or in person (if safe) and encourage events that are fun. Competitiveness can be left behind for a while, as people adjust to a new world.

  • Offer financial support and education

Many people are dealing with financial stressors due to the pandemic. Offer high quality help for employees who need assistance to manage their finances.

  • Actively promote an open and approachable environment

Make your work culture open, honest and non-judgemental. Create an environment where mental health issues and stress can be discussed easily and openly. Share experiences with your employees and put wellbeing champions in place. Raise awareness of mental health issues and provide training and education.

  • Put fun back on the agenda in the office

Making authentic fun a central part of the office goes a long way to balancing people’s stress levels. Set up team activities that you know employees will enjoy, call in interesting speakers, set up events and give people a chance to get to know each other socially. This will help to create a more relaxed work atmosphere.

  • Make sports mandatory

Regular exercise is a hugely important part of being physically and mentally healthy. In the office, we all tend to be sedentary for long periods of time, and this is not conducive to mental health. Setting time aside for sporting activity during the working day is a great way to combat this and ensure everyone gets the chance to let off some steam. This could mean installing gym equipment in the office if space allows, or organising team sports.

Supporting your employees’ mental health has never been more important than right now. Companies, business leaders, managers and CEOs have a moral duty to help their workforce through these challenging times. It also makes financial sense as it will cut down negative impacts on workflow and the company operations.

The debate over going back to the office rages on. Some big businesses have already stated that they will be allowing employees a choice for the foreseeable, while others are closing their offices entirely. Either way, we can assume that a mix of remote and office work will continue. This means that employers must re-evaluate the way that they support employees in terms of their stress levels and mental health issues.