In sectors such as engineering there is a pressing need to proactively support employees’ mental health, says Dave Capper, CEO of Westfield Health
When lockdown was first introduced back in March, the challenges were obvious and immediate: figuring out if and how people could work remotely, understanding the complexities of the furlough scheme, grappling with Teams and Zoom calls. Collectively, we were in crisis-response mode.
In the first few months and weeks of the pandemic, we focused on the practicalities, on safeguarding our physical health and that of the ones we love. It had a surreal, ‘this is not a drill’ feel to it, with more than a handful of ‘wartime spirit’ metaphors used.
As we look ahead to a possible second wave, the challenge – on the surface – may seem similar, but we’re actually facing something completely new.
Going into winter with many months of restrictions already behind us, the challenge now is as much about our mental as well as physical health. How can we do more than just get through these ‘unprecedented times’? How can we build a new normal?
The situation has moved from short-term crisis to a long-term response which makes the stress the pandemic is causing even more dangerous. Our innate response to stress is to go into ‘fight or flight’ mode where the body deprioritises ‘non-essential’ systems, such as digestion and reproduction, in order to keep our heart pumping ready to run away.
In short doses, that means stress doesn’t cause too much of an issue and can even be helpful. But when we have ongoing, chronic stress and this ‘fight or flight’ response becomes our default mode, it has serious consequences for our physical and mental health.
Covid has already cost us dearly in terms of our mental health. Across the population, 50% reported that their mental health had declined in the first lockdown, rising to a shocking 56% amongst furloughed parents.
In sectors such as engineering where furloughing employees and redundancies have sadly become so common over the past few months, there’s even more of a pressing need to proactively support employees’ mental health.
But with businesses so focused on cost cutting to try and stay afloat, how can this be the right time to invest in the ‘softer’ aspects of our workplace such as wellbeing and engagement?
The answer is we can’t afford not to. The average UK company employing 150 people spends £120,000 a year on absence. When combined with presenteeism – a growing issue where employees are working but not happy and struggling to concentrate – the cost to the UK economy is £81bn a year (Cambridge University).
Work is a valuable source of social interaction
To recover on a company and national level, we need a workforce that’s more productive and engaged than ever before, and that can only happen if we make mental health a priority.
What people need over the next few months won’t be help connecting to the VPN or a reminder of the importance of social distancing in the workplace, it’ll be meaningful social engagement.
With over 8.2 million people living alone in the UK, work is a valuable source of social interaction. The time we spend chatting to colleagues and building relationships helps us not only function better as a team but feel more connected to the work we do.
Managing to find a way to keep this sense of connection will be the biggest challenge this winter. Whether it’s team quizzes and virtual coffee mornings or one-to-one support calls, employees need to be acknowledged and supported on an individual-by-individual basis.
Taking a proactive and flexible approach can help boost engagement before issues emerge. Rather than thinking company-wide, HR policies need to offer company-wide principles with the flexibility to interpret and implement them at a department or team level where managers can take individual needs and preferences into account.
There also needs to be clearly signposted support in place for when people are struggling. Training managers as Mental Health First Aiders and encouraging regular 1:1s with team members can help spot red flags early, making sure people get the support they need when it can be at its most effective.
By acknowledging and taking steps to safeguard our mental as well as our physical health this winter, we will set ourselves up to recover economically, physically and mentally from a challenging 2020.
Dave Capper is CEO of Westfield Health