Mental Health Awareness Week: Keeping employee wellbeing front of mind

Mental health awareness in the workplace has grown increasingly in recent years, with open discussions and initiatives becoming more of a priority amongst HR and leadership teams. However, despite increased efforts, there is still a long way to go before mental ill-health is treated the same as physical illnesses – with 12 per cent of UK businesses not believing it is their responsibility to support their employee’s emotional and social wellbeing.

Mental Health Awareness Week, celebrated annually in the UK, aims to promote good mental health for all. The theme for this year is kindness, and, with the coronavirus pandemic causing a peak in ill-mental health, this has come at a critical time.

Employer News spoke to five technology experts to get their thoughts on how we can all ensure mental health is made a priority during the current crisis and beyond.

Remove the stigma

“We need to help to reduce the secrecy and stigma surrounding mental health issues,” Liam Butler, AVP at SumTotal, suggests. “Encourage employees to step forward if they are having mental health problems and make employers reconsider their own attitudes to mental health related illnesses.

“Organisations should take note of forward thinking attitudes when it comes to mental health – take Olark, a US-based tech company: one of its employees made a bold move to explain her absence from work by highlighting her own focus on mental health. Rather than the typical OOO email, Parker simply wrote, “I’m taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health. Hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100%.” The company’s CEO got involved. Not only did he praise her for setting such a noteworthy example, he thanked her for reminding him of the importance of using sick days for mental health and helping to remove the stigma associated with mental health.

“Companies should put in place their own policies and training to support suffering employees, as well as raise mental health awareness. Ultimately, mental health needs to be brought out of the shadows and into the spotlight of the boardroom, so that executives can ensure their employees have access to the resources and support they need.”

After all, statistics reveal that 1 in 6 of us will have experienced a mental health problem in the past week alone. “The importance, therefore, of ensuring discussions about an illness that will affect so many of us, remains in the spotlight cannot be underestimated,” says Rob Shaw, Managing Director, EMEA at Fluent Commerce. “We all have our part to play.

“As an employer there are many things we can do to look after our team’s mental wellbeing. First and foremost is creating a culture where employees can talk openly about how they’re feeling without fear of repercussion. From online resources, having dedicated chat platforms where employees can share concerns, to having a qualified staff Mental Health First Aider, the range of things an employer can do to support employee’s health is vast.”

Practice understanding, prioritise kindness

With the COVID-19 pandemic causing devastation across the world, businesses in every industry are quickly having to adapt to a new working style. For most, this will be an unprecedented challenge.

“World Mental Health Week is a good reminder to us all to stop and think about the impact that this situation is having on everyone, both mentally and physical,” says Krishna Subramanian, COO at Komprise. “Some technologies are getting more attention than others at the moment, such as video conferencing tools like Zoom, but there are other technologies that can make a huge impact on employee wellbeing too.”

Kleopatra Kivrakidou, Channel Marketing Manager EMEA at Ergotron, also warns of how the coronavirus can negatively impact mental health: “Although working from home does have its benefits – zero commute time, more flexibility, more time to spend with the family – those of us who have been (perhaps prematurely) forced into working from home as a result of current global circumstances may be experiencing a lengthy ‘breaking-in’ process. The effects on employee health and wellbeing, impacted by lack of social interaction, and/or by the onslaught of distractions present in the home, can be potentially negative. Additionally, the added pressure of remaining ‘always-on’ is blurring the lines between work- and home-life. Without these clear boundaries, it is all too easy for employees to over-work and feel stressed.”

She advises, “There are steps everyone can take to reduce and ideally avoid this, as well as (most importantly) look after the health and wellbeing of employees during this challenging time. Taking five-minute breaks regularly throughout the day is an easy way to avoid burnout and boost productivity – never underestimate the power of a tea-break! Maintaining movement whilst working also gives the body and mind a form of active recovery: using a sit-stand desk is one effective means of doing so, as it provides the flexibility of changing positions throughout the day. Adjustable monitor arms also allow a user to ensure the screen is at the perfect distance from the eyes, reducing strain and fatigue. Working from home does not come with a magical handbook – but there are small steps everyone can take in order to make sure that working from home is as comfortable as possible, both physically and mentally.”

Nicole Sahin, CEO and Founder at Globalization Partners, agrees that “it is important that leaders understand the strain that the current lockdown can have on mental health. For many, it will be a lonely, anxiety-inducing and stressful time, with lack of communication and pandemic-related worries taking their toll.

“It is more important than ever that consistent communication is a priority. Video calls, internal newsletters and informal check-ins all let employees know that they are supported and valued, also giving leaders the opportunity to look out for signs of stress. With the lines of home and work blurred, particularly for individuals having to manage childcare, or care for elderly relatives alongside their work duties, there is an increased risk of burnout. It is important to reassure colleagues that working from home does not mean being ‘on’ 24/7. Easing this pressure, showing care and compassion all help to cultivate a culture of care.”

Whilst strides have been taken in the acknowledgement and more-open discussions surrounding mental health issues in recent years, the current global crisis serves as a reminder that mental health and wellbeing must be a priority. In the busy workplace, it can be easy to neglect regular ‘check-ins’, this is made even harder when employees are working remotely. This Mental Health Awareness Week, it is more important than ever to take the time to pick up the phone, check in with one another, and be kind.