Mental health issues are one of the biggest causes of absenteeism amongst professionals. In fact, a CIPD study found that work-related stress, depression, or anxiety accounts for 44% of ill health and in the year between 2018 and 2019, over half (54%) of working days lost were a result of poor mental health. With this in mind, it’s clear that organizations can’t ignore the mental wellbeing of their employees.
As well as impacting people’s physical health, early indications suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic will also have an effect on the mental health of employees, particularly those that have worked on the frontline, contracted the virus, or faced months in lockdown. Because of this, organizations need to get additional measures in place to help protect the mental health of the workforce and to reduce long-term damage.
HR teams and the Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) need to quickly adapt and support workers who may be experiencing mental health problems as a result of COVID-19. Below we’ve outlined six ways this can be done and the key steps that HR professionals need to take.
1. Address any fears about returning to work
The first step to supporting employee’s mental health is to ask them how they're feeling and see if they have any concerns about returning to work. This can help you address any problems right away and give them some peace of mind. It also shows that you care about their wellbeing and you want to make the transition back to work as smooth and safe as possible.
2. Run a re-introduction if needed
When speaking to employees about their concerns, it might have become apparent that some are already feeling stressed about returning to work because they’ve been so used to being at home and feel out of the loop. It could therefore be helpful to run re-introductions as people return, particularly to anyone who joined shortly before the virus began spreading or possibly even those new hires that came onboard during the pandemic.
On the first day back, circulate an email, hold a meeting, or put together a welcome pack that outlines all the new rules and regulations. This can be your opportunity to give employees peace of mind by outlining any new safety measures that have been put in place to protect them. You can also include the key symptoms of COVID-19 as a reminder so everyone knows what to look out for and a breakdown of your COVID-19 action plan should someone test positive.
Finally, let everyone know that the organization is working hard to support them physically and mentally and remind them that HR and management teams are there to listen if they're struggling.
3. Communicate regularly on wellbeing and mental health
Communication shouldn't stop after the first day back. You need to make sure that you're regularly checking in with employees, perhaps running feedback surveys or encouraging one-to-one catch ups to stay on top of how they are feeling. You can take these opportunities to ask about their mental state and you should also ask if there’s anything more the business can be doing to support mental health in the workplace. You can then put any helpful suggestions into action.
You must also create a culture of trust and honest communication. By encouraging open communication between workers, their managers, and the HR team, employees will feel more confident coming forward with a problem, this can also help to remove the stigma around talking about mental health.
4. Raise awareness of mental health
Despite more and more people coming forward and opening up about their mental health, there’s still a real stigma around it and many are reluctant to admit when they're suffering. In order to combat this issue, you could run seminars or activities that raise awareness about mental health and discuss the different ways in which COVID-19 might have impacted people’s wellbeing.
This is also an opportunity to encourage people to open up and to look after one another. Though someone might not feel comfortable approaching their manager, they may be happy to talk to one of their close colleagues about what they're going through.
5. Help employees to regain their work-life balance
Whether your employees have been working from home or off work for the past few months, it’s likely that their work-life balance will have been thrown off course. This can be a huge problem as this balance can easily impact their stress levels and mental wellbeing. As such, it’s a good idea to support people as they try to readjust to working life and get back into their old routine.
If people have been working from home, make sure they're not still taking their laptop home with them in the evenings or on weekends. For those that have been off work completely, allow them a transition period to ease them back into work. After all, it can be quite a shock to the system if they've been out of work for a while.
6. Offer additional training to managers
It’s a good idea to brief managers on the potential effects that COVID-19 could have had on employees and let them know how they can best support individuals who are suffering.
You might even wish to offer them additional training to prepare them for dealing with their teams when they return. Managers will play an important role in looking out for workers and encouraging open and honest communications. They’ll be the first port of call for many individuals and must therefore be equipped to offer advice and support to their employees.