Managing mental health in a changing workplace

Published July 29, 2021, 6:45 a.m. by Lara McCoy

Empty office
Spoon Helsinki’s Lara McCoy spoke to Stephen Haynes of Mates in Mind, a UK-based workplace mental health charity, about how companies are facing the challenges of a post-pandemic workforce.

As workplaces begin to reopen, what kind of concerns do people have about going back to the office?

On the whole, many organisations have been, and continue to be reasonably adaptable to the needs of their people – but this is not consistent across every employer/ sector. Some of the challenges we're seeing are increased levels of anxiety and frustration – particularly where people have adapted to changes in their working day and are now being expected to return to a previous state of working, or where people feel they have less control or say in decisions which affect their working pattern, or where there are working environments with a mixture of front line and back office, where lockdown has created perceived inequalities in working styles – e.g. “Why do they get to work from home and not me?” or vice versa. Some people don’t feel comfortable coming back into ‘office’ environments, or to re-adapt to a commute in the same way.

I'm seeing some concerns both at the employee level and the manager level. Some managers feel less equipped to be able to support employees who are coming to them with issues. Whilst at the same time, many employees are saying that they have adapted quite well, but there may be some underlying factors that they might not be raising.

Sometimes, we find employees who don’t feel that their concerns have been listened to, addressed or that they have received support from their managers or the organizations that they work with.

How are companies addressing these concerns?

When it comes to mental health within the workplace, the most important question to ask upfront is: “What specifically are we trying to address?” When it comes to addressing mental health & wellbeing in the workplace, it comes down to identifying the key challenges and putting in place measures to address them. This means engaging with and listening to workers, looking at what your data is (and isn’t) telling you so companies can put in place relevant and informed interventions. I have seen and worked with many organisations since lockdown where the primary concern of senior leadership is the well-being of the people – and vitally, capturing as relevant a picture of how their people are. Use of tools such as well-being/ engagement surveys has increased over the past 18 months as employers try to get to build as informed a picture as possible. No two companies are alike in their approach – and so they shouldn’t be – and whether interventions are there to support isolation, financial difficulties, anxieties, etc. it has been – and continues to be so, vital that whatever an employer puts in place is based on informed information – where employers take the time to actually understand those issues. We see a lot of interventions that are put in place based on an assumption rather than actually understanding the issues on the ground.

Once an organization has taken those steps to identify the problems they're trying to address, what kind of support systems are they putting in place?

This is unique to every organization. There are off-the-shelf solutions, there are evidence-based interventions that can be done within companies, but the things which really work are the things which are based around the needs of your workforce. We know from our work experience and the broad scientific evidence base, that manager styles and behaviors are one of the biggest drivers (and inhibitors) of workplace stress – and also how people feel about their work, and the degree to which they thrive at work. With the pandemic, the importance of having good line management, equipped to support and help steer their teams through the challenges presented, only increased. However, the focus of some workplace interventions still tended to favour existing tertiary supports, such as helplines. Whilst these are critical, from my experience over the past 18 months, the organisations that navigated the pandemic the ‘best’ are those where the well-being of workforce was driven from the top down – with empathy, with humility, strong communication and engagement and so on. Over-reliance on tertiary supports as the main support mechanism generally doesn’t work.

For people who are still working remotely and have had it with video meetings, what are some tips for maintaining your mental health when you're facing more of this?

This is going to sound a little bit cliche, but at an individual level, having clear boundaries around your workday and workspace, taking breaks and getting out, walking away from the desk, putting the ‘computer down’ through to maintaining a good diet (and importantly, ensuring that leadership and management endorse and promote these behaviours) are vital ingredients. Make sure that you are clear in your own head about are your own comfort zones and boundaries. Avoid back-to-back video meetings where you can – and certainly avoid full-on days of video meetings. If you need to engage in regular meetings, mix-up how you do them. Do some whilst walking around the park on the phone if you can.

On the on the flip side, for people who are coming back to the office and might be anxious about dealing with other people again, do you have any tips for reintegration?

I think slow integration is important. For people to just suddenly go back into a 9-to-5, five days a week office environment, it's going to be a huge culture shock – just like it was to suddenly move to working remotely. Try to have a social gathering beforehand when that's feasible – to some extent, we’ve got to re-learn how to be social in the ‘real-world’ again with each other.

Do you have any suggestions for how colleagues can support each other in this period of transition?

Probably the most important thing we can do is just see how people are doing. If you are working remotely, I try to reach out to everyone I work closely with at least on a daily basis, no matter what. Just pick up the phone, drop an IM through Teams or send a text to ask how everything’s going – but keeping it relevant for them – e.g. How did you get on with that report you were working on last week – I was thinking of you? The more regular content we have, the more likely we are to spot if something's not quite right.

We need to continually shift that dial to encourage conversations around mental wellbeing, because at the end of the day, our mental health affects what we think, what we feel, and ultimately what we do. And if we don't feel comfortable in our working environment, then it will impact how we perform, and ultimately the performance of our business.