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Georgina Hardcastle

HR Consultant - Uckfield

10th May 2022

Supporting Mental Health post Covid-19 must remain a Business Priority

Supporting Employee Mental Health post Covid-19 must remain a Business Priority

Mental Health Awareness Week (9-15 May 2022) is an annual opportunity for the whole of the UK to focus on promoting positive mental health. The theme this year is ‘loneliness’. This article looks at the impact of loneliness on our mental health well-being and the practical steps employers can take to support their employees.

It’s important for businesses to remember that everyone will have experienced the pandemic differently and many people continue to suffer from its impact on their mental health.

Is employee well-being falling down the business agenda?

With the Government having lifted all Covid-19 restrictions earlier this year, people seemingly going about their ordinary daily lives and ‘business as usual’ being the key priority for many organisations, some might say that Covid-19 is all but forgotten. It’s somewhat hard to remember the challenges we all endured for two years.

The CIPD’s ‘Health and Well-being at Work Report 2022’, suggests that the number of HR professionals who either think that employee well-being is on the senior leadership agenda or is encouraged by senior leaders has dropped in the past year. Similarly, the report reveals a decrease in managers who have bought into the importance of employee mental health, falling from 67% in 2021 to 60% in 2022.

Whilst many employers are still contending with the financial impact of the pandemic on their businesses, it’s vital to remember that Covid-19 has not only increased the severity of existing mental health challenges, it has created new ones for many people. Depression and anxiety, loneliness and burnout are among the most common issues to have skyrocketed.

Businesses are urged not to de-prioritise employee mental health. Effective and supportive health and well-being strategies which help to build resilience are critical to the long-term success of any organisation. Employers who pay less attention to mental well-being potentially ‘run the risk of losing valuable employees at a time of severe skills shortages’ (CIPD).

Loneliness and its impact on employee mental health

Research by The Mental Health Foundation has found that ‘loneliness has been an important factor contributing to higher levels of distress, resulting from people’s sense of isolation and reduced ability to connect with others’ as well as loneliness being a ‘key driver of poor mental health’. Research has also indicated that during the lockdowns, loneliness was almost three times higher than pre-pandemic levels.

Despite the post pandemic ‘business as usual’ sentiment, many people continue to struggle with loneliness. Whilst loneliness might seem like a personal or inconsequential issue, to many it’s anything but that.

From a personal perspective, feelings of social isolation have affected my own mental well-being. My day-to-day socialisation with parents on the school run with my youngest child became non-existent due to Covid-19 restrictions and it has continued to remain minimal post Covid. At the same time, my eldest child started secondary school which led to losing another group of parents I saw on a daily basis. Similarly, whilst I benefit greatly from working at home as it helps me balance my work and childcare arrangements effectively, there is an element of feeling isolated and learning how to replace the social element of the in-person office routine with virtual connections instead. The above combined have impacted on my overall self-confidence and in turn my ability to re-connect and socialise with people.

Loneliness is a very subjective experience making it difficult for employers to identify. It can manifest itself at work in a variety of ways such as emotional withdrawal, lower engagement levels, less creativity, reluctance to collaborate with colleagues, general feelings of apathy and workplace burnout, leading to an overall deterioration in productivity.

The pandemic brought about a huge shift in how and where employees work, with hybrid working now gaining significant momentum. Whilst moving to remote working does indeed have a multitude of benefits such as improved levels of productivity and engagement, businesses must manage the impact of factors such as the loss of face-to-face collaboration, feelings of isolation and disconnection from colleagues, all of which can exacerbate or create feelings of loneliness.

Practical measures employers can take to alleviate the impact of loneliness

Aside from the immeasurable individual detriment to those affected, the financial cost to businesses of employees having poor mental health is vast. Government figures indicate an estimated £2.5 billion lost to staff turnover, absenteeism and productivity every year – that’s an average of nearly £10,000 per employee. With this in mind, taking steps to tackle loneliness in the workplace has never been more important.

  • Provide managers with training so that they are equipped to spot potential warning signs that a colleague is struggling with loneliness, such as, spending a lot of time alone or lack of engagement in social activities or general conversation. Knowing what to do in these situations in a supportive manner can make a big difference to someone.
  • Keep the conversation about mental well-being ongoing all year round to reduce stigma and raise awareness. This will encourage people to feel able to talk about loneliness and seek help. Supporting campaigns such as Mental Health Awareness Week and Loneliness Awareness Week (13-17 June 2022) shows employees that the business takes mental health seriously.
  • Consider offering an Employee Assistance Programme to enable employees to talk about their feelings anonymously with an impartial professional. Loneliness is real and some people may feel unable to be open about their struggles, even with the most supportive of managers. 
  • Prioritise regular check-ins/one-to-one meetings to stay connected with people not only to discuss work matters but to check in on ‘how they are doing’. Remember people have lives outside of work too. A simple ‘how are you? or ‘how was your weekend?’ strengthens relationships and gives people the opportunity to talk openly should they wish to. Avoid cancelling these meetings even when you’re busy. 
  • Be aware of signs of burnout as exhaustion can exacerbate feelings of loneliness. Encourage employees to work regular and sensible hours and to take proper breaks to protect their work-life balance. Unhealthy working trends, such as ‘leaveism’ (people working during annual leave) or ‘presenteeism’ (working while off sick), are becoming far too common particularly amongst homeworkers. 
  • Reach out to remote workers more frequently as they are particularly susceptible to loneliness. Swapping email communication with a phone call, video chat or suggesting an in-person conversation will help to combat the social exclusion arising from home-working. Be aware of employees who turn off their camera during a video call as this could be a sign of burnout or other poor mental health issues.
  • Communicate regularly with new starters, those who have had recent ill health or those employees returning from maternity leave particularly if they are to be working remotely. Loneliness and feelings of disconnection can become very real very quickly without effective support channels in place. 
  • Promote stronger working relationships between employees by encouraging collaborative activities such as team building days out or regular team social events. You can’t force people to be friends but you can support them to initiate bonds. ‘Feeling lonely in a crowded room’ may be a cliché, but it’s important to remember that while many people may have interaction at work or be physically surrounded by colleagues, they may still be experiencing loneliness.

It’s vital that employers take regular action and engage meaningfully in taking steps to tackle loneliness. ‘Paying lip service’ to what is a very significant issue will be sensed by employees and devalue any processes the business has in place.

We are here to help

Do you require a review of your employee well-being strategies? Do you need support or advice on employment law? The GatekeeperHR team is here to help. GatekeeperHR is a fixed cost, employment law and HR retainer service which provides businesses with access to a dedicated team of experienced lawyers and HR professionals who you can speak to, or meet face-to-face, at any time. The service includes a full HR compliance audit, access to an online portal full of valuable employment law and HR resources and an annual training session on topics of your choosing. To find out more about GatekeeperHR, please contact us.

Alternatively, you can browse the GatekeeperHR website, sign up for a free trial or download our brochure by visiting www.gatekeeperhr.co.uk.

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