How to navigate mental health in the post-pandemic workplace

Danni Rush, Chief Customer Officer at Virgin Incentives and Virgin Experience Days shares her thoughts on the best practices regarding the best way to navigate mental health in a post-pandemic workplace.

Every year, the World Health Organisation recognises World Mental Health Day on 10th October. This year’s theme was ‘Mental Health in an Unequal World’. With the pandemic creating inequalities and exacerbating mental health issues worldwide, celebrating the day and addressing the issues raised by this year’s theme is particularly important.

Even before COVID-19, mental health has always been a tricky topic to navigate. However, with such a high prevalence in society – including one in five women and one in eight men identified with a common mental health disorder according to a 2019 study by Mind – it’s extremely important that businesses understand it and learn how to manage it.

So how can businesses prepare for post-pandemic mental health challenges and improve their employee support?

Mental health challenges of the workplace post-pandemic

The pandemic has exacerbated and accelerated many mental health issues. The isolation and uncertainty of the past 18 months have sewn anxiety, depression and stress among the workforce.

A recent Glasgow University study found that 41% of the UK population is at risk of developing mental health problems as a direct result of COVID-19.

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen people respond differently to the stresses it has created and the disruption it has caused. And this pattern is repeating as we emerge into a new post-pandemic world and restore a semblance of normality. Some may be uneasy about resuming normal habits including increasing social interaction. Some may like the flexibility of remote working and hybrid working, while others may feel isolated and alone or may not feel comfortable working with the people they live with. In this new environment, businesses must recognise these differences and create bespoke support tailored to the individual needs of each employee.

How businesses can sensitively navigate these

Communication is key. However, with 67% of workers admitting they wouldn’t discuss mental health with their bosses, starting a conversation isn’t easy. Discussing sensitive mental health issues in the working environment could be stressful and daunting. Creating a safe and compassionate space to do so will reduce a lot of anxiety. Businesses can adopt an ‘open door’ policy where employees feel comfortable to talk to line managers and appointing mental health ‘champions’ within the workplace will increase the number of people employees can approach privately. Often simply listening to employees and showing that you are taking their concerns seriously can help. Create regular one-to-one meeting with line managers and encourage colleagues to talk about any problems openly and in confidence

Alternatively, if employees feel uncomfortable about opening up to their employers or colleagues, then businesses can consider offering a free Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). An EAP offers 24/7 confidential access to help and advice from trained professionals whenever employees need it.

Businesses can also create surveys for employees to share feedback anonymously including on questions about the company’s approach to mental health and the quality of the support, so businesses can constantly improve and adapt their offering.

Alternative ways to improve mental health in the workplace

As well as offering mental health support, it’s also important to foster positive employee morale. Businesses should consider a long-term employee reward and recognition programme to keep workers engaged and motivated.

Virgin Incentives’s recent whitepaper research surveyed 2,000 UK employees and found that 22% had never received a reward from their employer. The shortfall in rewards is alarming for businesses who may be struggling with employee morale. Acknowledging employees’ hard work has been shown to have a positive impact on them. Our research also found that rewards improve employee happiness, with 68% of organisations with a reward and recognition programme reporting strong employee retention.

The discrepancy might come from a misguided perception among businesses that reward and recognition programmes exclusively involve financial benefits. However, cash bonuses are costly and often fail to drive long-lasting positive sentiment and engagement between employee and employer – they are often frittered away on trivial purchases and the association is lost.

Businesses can instead incorporate experiences into a successful reward and recognition programme.

Our whitepaper revealed that 75% of employees feel valued when gifted vouchers, followed by own-choice rewards (71%) and team treats (64%). They are a great way for employees to create new memories they can share with colleagues or family and friends, and are an opportunity to strengthen bonds with employers.

Supporting an employee experiencing mental health issues is not only important for retaining talented workers and boosting morale, it also represent core business values. Employees whose mental health is supported are more likely to feel valued and cared for. In a competitive labour market of worker shortages, and in a post-pandemic world where mental health problems have been pushed to the limits, World Mental Health Day is a great opportunity to remind ourselves of the importance of supporting employee mental health.