As a society, we might not be able to agree on many things – but one thing that I think we can all agree on, is that 2020/21 has been (and still is) TOUGH. The many challenges we face, as individuals and as businesses, economically and socially, to use Boris’ favourite word –are unprecedented” and the landscape, we find ourselves in, is entirely new, ever changing and shape shifting. But of course, where there are challenges, uncertainty and unknowns – there exists opportunities! Afterall, innovation and re-imagining the status-quo rarely happens, when everything is hunky dory.

One of those “opportunities”, I’d like to touch on in this blog, is one very close to my heart (and ever present in my brain) – is the opportunity to reimagine the role of business in supporting positive mental health of its employees/freelancers. I’m a long-time mental health advocate and I’ve wanted to write this post for a while now – so let’s get to it!

Mental Health, as a general area and contemporary issue, create challenges AND opportunities for businesses. These challenges and opportunities, may trigger a business to rethink, reframe and reimagine employee mental health support, out of necessity, after all folx are having to work from home during a pandemic in a very real, challenging reality with stresses on multiple fronts and businesses need healthy, functioning folx to continue to do their jobs in spite of the pandemic AND secondly…well because, in my opinion, it’s the right thing to do – businesses should invest in and look after the well-being of employees/freelancers. If you want to most out of people (especially during a pandemic!), it is about supporting people through the change and uncertainty so they can still thrive in their jobs.

The mental health area is full of questions for businesses – many with ethical considerations that could and should be debated – What do businesses need to do in this area to ensure their people can still work? What is the duty of care to employees in regard to mental health generally AND what is the role in this pandemic? What’s the support for people struggling? What support is needed during furlough? What support should businesses be providing to get the best out of their people right now? What could businesses be doing to ensure healthy (and happy) employees at work long term?

Some may say, well…… that sounds like a lot of thinking time, potential investment and do businesses really have to do anything in this area!? If you don’t really buy into the social benefits or a belief like mine, that this is the right thing to do – I think investment also makes strategic sense. Now, I’m not a Richard Branson fan – but I certainly am a fan of his infamous quote: “If you look after your staff, they’ll look after your customers. It’s that simple.” The most important people in your business, are your staff/employees/freelancers; they are your potential advocates with a digital footprint– if you take care of them, they will take care of your customers and relationships in your network, who will in turn enable your business to grow.

As with anything, the question around the role of business in connection to employee mental health is influenced by what is happening right now; our COVID landscape, whilst it creates lots of unique challenges, there are also an abundance of opportunities too.

So, first up the mental health challenges for businesses and things to consider:

  • The pandemic has seen record numbers of people accessing support for mental help (I’m one of them!) – whether folx have had a pre-existing mental health issue, a previous issue re-emerging or something entirely brand new, lots of folx are struggling right now. In 2020, over 100million prescriptions for antidepressants were issued, the demand for mental health services more than doubled and mental health related internet searches up more than 200%. That paints a bleak picture, but it is the reality a lot of people are facing – businesses need to face and understand that reality and support their employees through it if they want them to perform to a high level and function.
  • Having to work from home, for some people, means they are having to work in toxic, difficult and sometimes, unsafe environments. I think this introduces an interesting point; businesses are duty bound to provide a safe space of work for their employees – how do you do that in this situation and what is the duty of care? We know that things like domestic violence have increased during lockdown – so what is a business’ role or duty of care to support an employee experiencing that in arguably “their place of work”? And does the business/management have the training, policies and support established to support an employee in that scenario?
  • Addiction across lock down has also spiralled – even folx who have been addiction free for years, have struggled; on furlough during a lockdown without purpose or routine, it is understandable that addiction can take hold. But what is the role of a business to the employee here? What addiction or counselling support is available? What is the duty of care to someone on furlough? What is the defined structure and appropriate safe space to check in with an individual struggling?
  • Even before COVID-19, our mental health services across the UK were buckling; we are sleep walking into a mental health crisis and 2020 has fast tracked it even more! That means that not only is our mental health worse than ever, but that waiting lists for services and diagnosis are years long. YEARS. It is no longer, enough for a business, to just sign post someone struggling to their GP and the MIND website. Of course, that course of action is still super important – but if you want a healthy, functioning employee at work, then a business surely has a role to play and responsibility whilst they wait for the services they need? And beyond!
  • Arguably the focus on being business LEAN, the reality of the hyper-focus on profitability or spending cuts in public sector and other industries, have led to a stripping back of employee well-being support, reduction in professional and personal development budgets, loss of staff rewards for hard work, removal of benefits packages and social budgets – whilst the ever-increasing expectation of doing even more, with less has firmly remained. And in some businesses, this lean – do more with less approach over the last decade has cut too deep and the pandemic, has exposed the reality that many employees are unhappy, burnt out, lacking in resilience and feeling undervalued. That is not good for business.

There are of course, MANY more challenges in this area, I’ve just selected a few. These challenges are inescapable for business right now and something that must be tackled, not just for necessity to get to the other side of this pandemic, but because it is the right thing for the business to do with long term benefits – a successful business is nothing without its people.

Tackling the challenges above and identifying gaps creates an opportunity for businesses that will make it more likely that their employees are healthy, able to work, high performing and ensures the business is truly looking after its people, as a “good” business should.

So, now on to the opportunities!

  • Businesses have the opportunity to really help in this space and invest in their people to get the best out of them. This is a great time for businesses to reflect on what their employee duty of care is generally, when they work from home and in a pandemic; what support structures they have in place, what mental health training is available for managers, what are the processes, the protocols, the trigger points to identify someone struggling and of course, if a business states in their values they are “people focused”, what does that actually mean in regards to the mental health and well-being of their employees? Some of this might mean big changes and investment of time and resource, others can be immediate– for example adding mental health and well-being to the priorities within strategic management meetings and/or to add a mental health “check in” during a meeting to gauge where everyone is at on a particular day.
  • Working from home as mentioned means that for some, they are working in unsafe, unstructured, toxic and challenging environments. This is an opportunity for a business to critically reflect on if they have training, processes and support available and in place in areas like domestic violence and addiction? And if things aren’t in place, it’s about making it an action.
  • Working from home, of course, creates challenges – but it also creates MANY opportunities. Often management structures, focusing on the traditional 9am-5pm and office-based work, makes it difficult for people to actually do their work. What if, businesses took a more individual approach, that still meets the needs of the business, but allows people to work from home, increases flexibility, meetings via Zoom if preferred and empowered an individual who (like me) prefers to work at night or (like most of my friends) look after children/trying to home school. Being more individualistic and flexible – I think creates lots of opportunities and I personally, know I am more motivated, achieve more, perform more highly and feel happier in my work, when I have more control.
  • Businesses have the opportunity to reimagine not only their approach to mental health and well-being for employees – but also what are they providing and offering their employees, to transform them into advocates of the organisation – a happy, healthy employee is a huge asset. It could be time to relook at personal and professional development budgets for training, reward packages, benefits package etc.
  • Finally, and as a comms professional, this one is super important! It could be time to relook at your internal communication processes; what are your internal lines of communication? Does someone experiencing mental health challenges know who they can talk to in the business? When the world is as challenging and chaotic as it is, what is the regular process for checking in with how employees are? What’s the process to report a mental health concern of a co-worker? Remember, you can have the best services and resources in place – but if they are written up in a binder somewhere or within a Dropbox folder, then no one is going to use them, and they aren’t meaningful. You need to effectively tell people about it!

Mental health is important to me and I believe it should be a strategic priority for businesses too – in the immediate short term, out of necessity to ensure folx can work in this pandemic and longer term, because it makes business sense to ensure folx are healthy and can perform and most, importantly (for me), because it is the right thing to do and a business has a responsibility to its people.

I’d like to close this opinion piece firstly, by reminding business folx reading this, that during a pandemic, in lockdown where people can’t see their friends and family (support structure) – the Team Meeting via Zoom or the Microsoft Teams work call, might be the only regular human interaction someone is getting, so please take time to listen, to notice and make space for people to say how they actually are. We should be kind to each other and look out for one another – I think we all have a role to play in that, including businesses.

Secondly, if you’re looking for businesses doing interesting things in Mental Health – I would suggest linking up with:

  • Discova Health – Bespoke, action-plan based mental health and wellbeing for individuals, teams and businesses. An application that helps employees overcome issues, whether it’s anxiety, stress, debt or even just personal development – Discova puts real actionable solutions from clinical psychologists and resources into the hands of individuals.
  • Crystallised – A socially engaged marketing agency that has implemented a wide range of things for their team to support their mental health and well-being and has seen huge benefits to the business. From implementing a 4-day work week, to a training and qualifications budget, to social/treat budgets, to a “well-being” budget to be spent on anything (including massages or a weekend away!) and access to support. This North East agency really values and champions, its people and is a great example of a people focused business.
  • Mortal Fools – Theatre, drama and creative learning company Mortal Fools are an organisation that have really invested into their team across the pandemic – well-being budgets, training, digital socials, treat packages and they have taken the opportunity to imbed positive mental health as a priority for the organisational team and wider network; redesigning support structures, redrafting policies, evolving processes, seeking out expert advice and training in certain areas and inviting critical friends into the business to give feedback. In addition, Mortal Fools specialise in leadership training for individuals, teams and businesses – one of the areas, they’ve been delivering training on, is around developing resilience as a personal practice and being able to manage uncertainty. This training is currently being delivered online.

Thirdly, this piece is not meant to be a balanced view –this is my opinion and I invite any and all comments, dissents and alternatives. I don’t have the answers – but I was determined to write this to get you thinking.