Mental health has slowly been a growing priority for businesses but as many employees head back into the workplace this will become more pressing, so how can SME managers help?
Before the coronavirus crisis, almost 90% of British adults commonly experienced work-related stress. Our current situation is likely to cause many to feel external uncertainty, as well as more pressure both professionally and personally, so it’s fair to assume this number could be on the rise.
While to some extent the pandemic has helped to improve awareness of employee wellbeing, caught up in just trying to get through the hectic day-to-day ‘ and especially in more challenging circumstances it can still all too easily be pushed to the side by management, allowing problems to fester and potentially leading to bigger mental health issues further down the line. And despite small workplaces (up to 50 employees) reportedly having statistically lower rates of work-related stress, depression and anxiety than larger companies, this is not only an issue for big businesses.
Having adjusted to one new working reality, more turbulent shifts are approaching. Whether this be returning to the office, adjusting to the idea of full-time home working, or just a change in job role, employees will need this awareness to translate into action. But how can managers effectively implement change and finally make employee mental health a real priority?
First things first, managers need to understand the basics of what they need to be looking out for. A new study by recruitment firm, Robert Walters, just revealed that almost half of managers at British businesses fear their staff are at risk of burnout. But how do they know? While there are no actual criteria for diagnosis, there are a few tell-tale signs.
Both physical and mental exhaustion are key indicators that an employee may be feeling overwhelmed, but a lot of these symptoms aren’t clear at first. Ensure you keep an eye out for employees who are noticeably more tired than usual ‘ fatigue is the first sign of exhaustion. Some may emotionally distance themselves from colleagues and peers or take longer to complete tasks that they usually do quickly. Getting to know your employees on a personal level will help here, as you are more likely to pick up on these smaller changes. And with a smaller sized company, it should be much easier to have that closer relationship with employees.
Be transparent and encourage a culture of openness
As we all know, talking about a problem is the first step to helping solve it. But if your employees feel unable to discuss certain subjects, either because they are wary of how the conversation will go down or just feel the topic is taboo, it makes talking even harder. Having a workplace culture that encourages openness, acceptance and awareness is vital for helping instigate these conversations.
Creating an environment of transparency and open communication will enable employees to feel comfortable opening up and alleviate feelings of shame or guilt for discussing and dealing with personal issues. There is no point just introducing a bunch of HR initiatives and hoping for the best, these attitudes need to be lived, ingrained in the company culture, and driven by all employees, especially management. So, lead by example.
A great way to start up conversations could be for managers to discuss their own personal struggles they may be facing with their teams ‘ and with the return to offices, this could be more easily done face-to-face. Try setting up a one-to-one check-in to see if your employees need any extra support and start the conversation with an example from your personal life ‘ this helps people to talk more openly about their own difficulties. On top of helping employees to feel more confident discussing personal problems, it will also help them feel like a valuable asset to the company; their emotional state and feelings are valid, and they are more than just a productivity tool.
Be even more flexible
Now more than ever, flexibility within the business is key. Everyone’s working situations have differed throughout the pandemic. For some, they were furloughed and are now returning to work, for others they have been working full time from home and for some their entire job role may have changed to suit the needs of the company.
Businesses and managers can help their workforce by offering flexibility in these times of change. Some employees have chosen to cancel any planned annual leave meaning a lot will be in desperate need of a recharge. This could be a great opportunity to increase leniency on annual leave policies. This doesn’t necessarily mean offering more annual leave, it could simply mean being more flexible with holiday processes, such as the notice needed for taking holidays. Similarly, contrary to beliefs of securing a greater work/life balance, many employees worked longer hours during lockdown, feeling compelled to be more productive while working from home. In fact, a recent survey shows that 87% felt the pressure to keep their levels of productivity high. Managers can take immediate action on potential stress triggers by ensuring employees are taking breaks and have manageable workloads, helping to prevent burnout and other mental health issues.
Seek out external support
While there are many measures managers can take to look after employees’ wellbeing, it is important to remember they can’t solve everything, and for certain issues, external help may be necessary. And this could be more difficult than before the pandemic. According to the NHS Confederation, there has been a significant rise in people reporting severe mental health difficulties and it’s believed that this is due to many avoiding using health services during the height of the pandemic. As a result, their issues have progressively worsened and there’s now even greater demand.
Organisations need to help managers to recognise when it’s the right time to suggest someone more qualified be brought in. Private counselling costs anywhere between £10 and £70 per session, according to the NHS, so enabling financial access to these services is just one way that businesses can help prioritise their employees’ mental health.
As a business, your workforce is your most valuable asset and with so many people facing difficult times ahead while readjusting to yet another new working world, finding ways to support your employees is key. Simply taking the time to reach out and ask someone if they need to chat might not solve all their issues, but it can go a long way.