The psychological fallout of the last few months is unlikely to be truly understood for years to come. Many have faced the combined trauma of social isolation, fear around the global pandemic and growing financial uncertainty over the safety of their jobs.
This has come at a time when we are talking about mental health more than ever before, but that’s not to say that there still aren’t barriers to be broken on the issue.
“Despite growing awareness, there are sadly still too many people who don’t feel safe talking about their mental health at work,” said Jenny Edwards, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, back in 2017. Then, the organisation found that 38% of UK workers feared discussing a mental health problem could jeopardise their career.
“We still hear examples of mental ill-health being used as a form of casual insult. This creates a culture where people don’t feel able to talk about their mental health at work or reach out for support when they need it.”
In the last few years efforts have been made to combat the issue, and considerable advances have been made, but not all industries have seen as profound an improvement as others.
In June Alan Lusty, CEO of engineering firm adi Group, argued that more needed to be done to combat mental health in engineering, arguing that “British engineering hasn’t been so effective at finding answers” as has been the case in other fields.
“In comparison to other countries around the world, there is still a lot of stigma around mental health here in the UK.”
“Now, don’t get me wrong, much of the stigma attached to mental health has been removed in the last few years by greater acceptance. It is no longer the taboo it was in my younger days and people are more prepared to speak openly about their experiences,” he wrote.
“UK engineering has without doubt moved with society and – in varying degrees – taken steps to accommodate mental health issues. But my argument is that we have to go further, that we have to get serious about it. We need to move from cure to prevention. And that’s no mean feat, I’ll admit.”
This sentiment has been echoed through much of the wider technology industry, particularly in the UK where the ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality has been remarkably pervasive.
“In comparison to other countries around the world, there is still a lot of stigma around mental health here in the UK,” says Ashleigh Otter, chief of staff at edtech startup Perlego.
“Whilst the tide is changing, it still permeates through businesses where the traditional approach of ‘putting a brave face on and being professional’ continues to be the default.”
Companies, mental health and the lockdown
However, the lockdown has had a peculiar impact on workplaces’ role in mental health, as it has simultaneously placed greater strain on the mental health of employees, and forced greater compassion from employers.
“Prior to lockdown, there was definitely a stigma around mental health - the fact it’s only relevant for people with severe depression, anxiety or similar,” says Otter.
“Now, I think there has been a wider appreciation and understanding towards mental health being relevant to everyone - just like your physical health.”
This has in part been due to the crumbling walls between work and personal life that mass remote working has produced.
“The past few months have given us the opportunity to go beyond seeing peers in just the professional sense and start seeing a glimpse into their personal lives,” she adds.
“The past few months have given us the opportunity to go beyond seeing peers in just the professional sense and start seeing a glimpse into their personal lives.”
“It’s also forced senior leadership teams to prioritise empathy and compassion for their teams. I hope that this continues well beyond the lock-down and that companies now view employees’ mental health and general wellbeing as important.”
That’s not to say that all companies have taken needed action to maintain employee wellbeing.
“It’s quite obvious that some businesses have been forced to become more aware and have embraced that, but others have neglected their duty,” says Samantha Hornsby, co-founder at Gen Z employer branding agency ERICA.
“The gap between those polar opposites has become wider. We have found that lockdown has in some cases brought employees closer together and encouraged them to be more open about wellbeing, with many more regular group meetings about mental health and post-work activities like yoga on Zoom for example, but for others it’s been business-as-usual, at the detriment of not only their employee welfare but also their brand perception.”
Lessons from Perlego
Perlego has arguably been ahead of the curve on tackling mental health within the UK tech space, putting it in a better position than many to help support its employees during lockdown. However, the company made this effort in response to the departure of a team member because of mental health.
“At the beginning of this year, we had one of our team leave us due to mental health issues. This caused a huge shift across the team on how we view and discuss mental health,” says Otter.
“We introduced a mental health and wellbeing squad, a group of volunteers from across the company who are dedicated to initiatives and awareness to support the company. It was lucky timing as the lockdown came into effect a few months later, which meant we had the structure setup to really support the mental health of the team.”
That’s not to say that the company hasn’t faced challenges in extending its mental health support during lockdown.
“The biggest challenge for us was realising that it wasn’t a small portion of the team who were struggling. It had affected every single member of the team in some way or another,” she says.
“The biggest challenge for us was realising that it wasn’t a small portion of the team who were struggling.”
“We struggled initially to think about the best support system which we could deliver at scale and also felt personal. Luckily, we have an incredible mental health and wellbeing project squad who have been working tirelessly to research, brainstorm and trial a number of different initiatives – testing as we go!”
A key focus on the company’s efforts amid lockdown has involved dividing employees into two groups.
“First, those who were struggling with deep mental health issues and needed support via way of counselling and second, the wider team who were feeling the day-to-day drain of lockdown,” says Otter.
“For group one, we’re testing offering expert third party counselling via l. For group two, we’re trying a whole range of initiatives from offering a personal day, daily reflection prompts, dedicated time away from the laptop to exercise, sharing good news stories and most importantly checking in with others – no agenda, just ‘how are you?’.”
Otter believes that “taking time out of your day to check in with your team and peers, beyond the work chat” should become standard practice for companies.
“It’s become part of our routine to regularly check-in with each other, ask how we’re feeling and how we can help,” she says.
“Everyone has developed an incredible amount of empathy towards each other and I believe this will continue, even when back in the office, making our team stronger.”
Is the lockdown a step back for mental health?
However, while some companies are reaching out more, ERICA’s Hornsby sees the situation exacerbating mental health issues, not only because of how isolating working remotely can be, but because greater competition for jobs may lead to many opting not to disclose their own conditions for fear of discrimination.
“Unmentioned mental health issues in the workplace will be a big concern in terms of looking after new and current employees,” she says.
“Gen Z are well aware that there are even less opportunities because of coronavirus and it’s quite probable that they may not want to say if their mental health is suffering for fear of either not getting hired or losing their jobs.”
This is echoed by ERICA’s own research, which found that 76% of Gen Z candidates “would prioritise getting a job over their mental health post-lockdown”.
“It’s quite probable that they may not want to say if their mental health is suffering for fear of either not getting hired or losing their jobs.”
“I think we can all agree that although progress in terms of mental health awareness was steadily growing before lockdown, it’s likely we’ve just taken 10 steps back in terms of enabling openness between employer and employee.”
However, for employers that rely heavily on recruiting those at the start of their career, a strong mental health policy is now becoming increasingly important to attract top talent.
“Young people are definitely noticing how companies are reacting to this pandemic,” says Hornsby, pointing to a recent comment by a member of ERICA’s Gen Z community.
“The brands I've been impressed with most are those that took initiative quite early on and took action before they needed to,” the comment said.
“That just gives you the sense that the safety of their employees were a priority and shows the number one thing they are focusing on.”
Supporting mental health beyond the lockdown
With all of this in mind, building stronger mental health policies beyond the lockdown is likely to be an increasing priority for companies, not only to ensure greater productivity, but to attract and keep talent.
“Companies can still do more – for example a company subscription for a meditation app for their employees to use, or providing regular online therapy,” says Horsby.
“Companies need to be aware of is that it isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, so management need to approach their teams with a personalised strategy – different personality types, different ages, different amounts of time spent at the company will all effect the way people are feeling.
“There’s always improvements that need to be made and now more than ever.”
“And finally, all businesses need to invest in mental health management training, because this should be an awakening for decision-makers that looking after your employees shouldn’t be reactionary, it should be done in anticipation.”
Most of all, companies need to recognise this is an ongoing process, not a project that can be tackled once and then filed away as ‘complete’.
“There’s always improvements that need to be made and now more than ever,” she adds.
“But the ongoing message to businesses should be that transparency and humanisation of the company and management is so important to embrace.
Solidarity is very key for team morale – we’re all in this together.”
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