Supporting the mental wellbeing of your staff pays real dividends – both for your people and your business, says former health minister and mental health campaigner Sir Norman Lamb.
The last year has tested many people in ways we could never have imagined. For too many families, mourning the loss of a loved one will have dominated their thoughts and emotions. And being denied the opportunity to say goodbye can leave psychological scars.
We know that so many of the circumstances associated with a heightened risk of mental ill health have been present – isolation and loneliness, fear of unemployment and anxiety about debt.
People can be remarkably resilient at times of pressure and most will bounce back. But evidence from previous pandemics and from past recessions does point to a psychological fallout.
Smart employers will recognise what many of their staff have gone through. They will appreciate that many staff, who have been working remotely from home, will be anxious about a return to the workplace.
They will also understand that supporting their workforce through these challenging times is both the right thing to do and is in their own interests.
We know, for example, from a 2017 study, that sickness absence due to poor mental health at that time cost UK employers some £8 billion a year. On top of that, the cost of presenteeism (employees attending work but not functioning effectively because of ill health) was estimated to be somewhere between £17 billion and £26 billion. And then there is the cost of the turnover of staff caused by ill health, assessed at approximately £8 billion.
This amounts to a staggering total cost of between £33 billion and £42 billion. And that was before Covid struck. So taking effective action to reduce the costs to your business makes sense.
Here are five things to think about when planning for our post-Covid world:
1. Training line managers can reap rewards. Many managers have never been given guidance on how to support people who might be experiencing stress or anxiety. No one expects managers to be mental health professionals but raising awareness of mental ill health is so important. We know that a bullying culture is toxic. Conversely, empathetic and compassionate leadership brings out the best in people. Research shows that training of line managers is one of the most effective ways of improving wellbeing in the workplace. And happy staff are more productive.
2. Mental Health First Aid training for some other staff can also help raise awareness and understanding. Some companies develop a network of mental health champions who are there to provide support and kindness to colleagues.
3. Think about how you might be able to embrace flexible working. For some staff, the ability to work from home through the pandemic might have helped with caring responsibilities. Simply forcing them to return, full-time, to the workplace may not make sense. Enabling staff to balance work and other commitments can relieve stress and can improve performance. People appreciate thoughtful employers. It helps generate loyalty and commitment.
4. Some companies are exploring use of digital platforms to provide support to staff. I chair the advisory board for a digital mental health company called Kooth. Their platform enables employees to confidentially seek guidance, via their phone, about their own mental health and to talk to others who might be experiencing similar worries. It also gives access to one-to-one counselling support without having to disclose your identity.
5. Leadership from the top is necessary. Staff need to know that the company’s commitment to their wellbeing is authentic and not just a fad – that the bosses really care.
The most important thing to remember is that this is not rocket science. But it is worth investing time and resources in getting it right. It will pay dividends for your staff and for the company.
Sir Norman Lamb was Minister of State at the Department of Health from 2012 to 2015 and the Liberal Democrat MP
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