During two decades of working with organisations, I have found there to be one central, incontrovertible fact: people, an organisation’s principle asset, are strong, robust and resilient. They are also fragile, sensitive and, well, human. I’ve seen people work at thresholds that defy logic, delivering levels of customer service, technical precision and intellectual ingenuity that would make the eyes water.
Organisations are increasingly aware that the demands placed on their people to deliver ‘whatever it takes’ is at odds with a burgeoning understanding of the impact on mental health of those demands, but this hasn’t translated sufficiently into working practices. That tension is manifest in the kinds of mental health related issues with which HR teams regularly deal: short-term absences, performance issues, burnout, desk assessment requests (due to the physical symptoms of psychical distress), fatigue and high turnover rates.
With the pandemic, the shift from office based to home based online working has brought some freedoms and benefits: many people mention delightedly how they have been using the extra time afforded by not commuting. As social creatures, however, it has raised some difficulties. Alongside the practical aspects of managing a remote team and defining performance management in a pandemic, we’ve wrestled with questions like: how do we set healthy boundaries when switching from work to home mode, how much work is enough, what demands are reasonable and what aren’t? At the same time, people are coping with the challenges of being around family full-time or living alone, not seeing friends, or home-schooling. The challenges are complex, multi-faceted and unique to every individual.
Studies by the King’s Fund and Lancet identified that an increase in workforce burnout as a result of the Covid-19 crisis was “highly likely” as technology rapidly adapted to enable a return to the ‘Business as Usual’ practices of high demand/high volume, with associated increases in the psychological demand on workers. Let’s not forget the impact on those employees who have returned to the office, roaming buildings now largely empty, seeing unoccupied desks of colleagues they used to pass the time of day with. These studies emphasise the medium and long-term risks of a traumatic response, ongoing health anxieties, sleep disturbances and, in some cases, even survivor guilt for staff in both these situations.
Pre-Covid, managing employee mental health and wellbeing was a critical part of the HR role. Too often, there were limited resources to address early warning signs and, in the worst cases, these turned into complex long-term absences necessitating income support and phased returns with associated long-term context management – often detrimental to the emotional, cultural and financial life of organisations. These were time consuming and costly but most importantly they were distressing for the individual concerned and their teams. The need to rebuild relationships after a long absence often compounded the anxiety of returning to work.
Working in-house, I was curious whether making available open-ended, long-term psychological care may mitigate the impact of symptoms and potentially avoid a long-term absence. Since the start of the pandemic, I am absolutely certain that organisations more than ever need to act to offer a wider suite of options to manage the mental health of employees, to avoid increasing numbers of medium and long-term absences relating to mental health.
One of the most effective resources is to have counsellors available who are skilled at working long-term with individuals to understand and manage the root causes as well as the symptoms of their emotional distress. Educating organisations about how distress manifests differently across people is also essential. EAP provision is typically for short-term psychological care which absolutely has its place, but there are many situations where long-term care is required but can’t readily be accessed. There are multiple barriers to access including feelings of shame if short-term approaches didn’t ‘work’ and the cost. By including long-term mental healthcare in your organisation’s provision, educating HR teams and line management, and destigmatising this type of therapy, organisations will demonstrate a real understanding of the complexity of supporting mental health.
Here are some other ideas for checking in on employees:
- Ensure there are trained Mental Health First Aiders available to speak at short notice for crisis situations and keep publicising the EAP which typically offers up to six sessions of therapy – often CBT, to staff free of charge and for many, this will be enough.
- Keep an eye on hours worked. Turning off the computer is essential for recalibrating the grey matter as well as inspiring creativity and increasing productivity.
- Keep finding ways of listening to staff. Informal channels work as well as formal but make sure it is meaningful.
- I’d urge you not to forget about your management and leadership populations who have fewer peers with whom to engage informally. Arrange a point of contact, such as an executive coach or a business mentor from outside the organisation. The investment will be relatively minimal when weighed against the benefit.
- No one expects HR to understand the differences between different types of counselling. Turn to people who can advise about the options available and how they might meet the needs of your circumstances. Typically, HR people, coaches and counsellors are well networked and are all working towards the same thing: the wellbeing of you and your teams.
- For some individuals more intensive or open-ended support will be required. This can often be managed alongside working hours if introduced early enough. Consider retaining a counsellor who understands the pressures of corporate life and is used to working long-term with clients.
It can be helpful to remember that organisations are systems, and the individuals within it are crucial elements of maintaining that system. Those people are also part of a complex social matrix that interacts with organisational life. The conversation about mental health at work is only now really opening up, but it is vital that it is had openly, with compassion and good humour and, most importantly, that it leads to action to support your people.
Christina Johnson is an HR generalist and Executive Coach with specific experience of working with individuals and teams to explore organisational culture, and career performance and development. She is also a qualified psychodynamic counsellor working in private practice alongside a network of counsellors across London and Hertfordshire.