The Government’s roadmap out of lockdown offers hope of a return to some level of normality, but for many the impacts could be long-term. Niki Fuchs, Managing Director of Office Space in Town spoke to Business Leader about the issue.
Experts predict that as much as 15% of the population could continue to suffer from poor mental wellbeing long after the pandemic relents.
With two thirds of adults having seen a decline in their mental health during the pandemic, as businesses begin to return to the office, considering how best to support mental wellbeing will be just as important as safeguarding against Covid-19.
Businesses should seize the opportunity to reassess their workspace and create an environment that boosts wellbeing, revitalises morale, and offers community among colleagues.
Mental health first aid
Mental and physical health are two parts of the same whole, yet the pandemic has highlighted just how far there is to go before businesses recognise mental wellbeing as more than just an optional extra for their workers. Indeed, many workers themselves are unaware of its importance. A third of those suffering with mental health issues during lockdown did not seek supports because they did not feel they deserved it.
This is a systemic problem caused by a lack of education and, to move in the right direction, employers should take the lead on raising awareness not only of the importance of mental wellbeing, but also of the resources available to support this. While discussions are underway in Parliament to make mental health first-aid training compulsory in all workplaces, businesses should take a proactive approach to mental health by implementing initiatives that teach employees to spot symptoms and encourage them to seek help.
It is in this way that businesses can aid their staff; not through always providing a step-by-step solution but by giving employees the tools to help themselves through knowledge and self-awareness.
The benefits of a more empathetic workplace are not only undeniable for employees, but also for businesses themselves. In fact, you only need to look at many of the organisations that dominate Fortune Magazine’s 100 Best Places to Work list, recognised as businesses that place a premium on trust and listening to workers, to understand that protecting worker mental health isn’t not just right, it’s also good business sense.
While businesses and employees have adapted well to remote working, being distant and disconnected from colleagues has taken a considerable toll on many workers’ mental health. A recent OSiT survey, for example, found that almost a third of workers struggled with loneliness more than any other aspect of working from home during the first lockdown.
Zoom meetings and collaboration tools aside, businesses must now prioritise replicating the sense of community that the workplace offers through online interactions. Team activities, much like work, can take place online during lockdown, with cooking classes and yoga sessions often proving popular alternatives to yet another round of quizzes. Keeping employees engaged sometimes requires imagination, but simple solutions such as virtual coffee breaks can work equally well. With wellbeing linked to higher levels of productivity, giving employees time to catch-up and converse can also pay dividends for those businesses suffering from remote working’s ‘productivity tax’.
As well as adopting a proactive approach to mental health, employers should also offer their workers the autonomy to create a way of working that best supports their wellbeing. With two thirds of the UK workforce demanding hybrid working models once lockdown measures end, it is evident that the work-life balance offered by rigid working models aren’t up to the job.
Flexible hours would allow employees to spend more time on outdoor walks, which have been a critical coping mechanism for 59% of people in the UK, according to the Mental Health Foundation. Moreover, flexible hours would enable parents to work around childcare, with three quarters of working parents having experienced stress and anxiety due to the difficult of balancing their work and home life.
Invest in your space
But incorporating flexibility into working life does not mean the end of the office. In fact, many measures designed to support workers during lockdown do so by supplementing what the workplace once provided.
With only 5% of respondents to OSiT’s remote working survey expressing a desire to work from home full-time after the pandemic, businesses shouldn’t consider cutting their lease short. Instead, businesses must continue to invest in their spaces, equipping them with technology that enhances health, happiness, and productivity. Well-lit, well-ventilated, and well-furnished workspace will be key to safeguarding employees’ mental health as we return to the office. But businesses should engage employees early to keep them informed and involved in decision-making and create a space that truly supports health and wellbeing.
Beating the lockdown blues
It is hoped that the UK will be free from lockdown measures from June 21, but there remains a significant challenge ahead for businesses. Unless employers pay proper attention to the wants and needs of their workforce, the ‘lockdown blues’ could become a firm feature of working life in the months ahead.
The past year has taught us that old ways of working weren’t working. Yet, with remote working causing high rates of anxiety and loneliness, neither is this new way. In order to support worker wellbeing, we must find the right balance, offering greater flexibility while giving them the ability to help themselves, and take care to remember that our employees are people, not machines.