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Managing mental wellbeing and returning to work

For many, it feels as though a dark cloud is lifting as the UK’s lockdown rules ease and we head towards summer.

As life starts to resemble a sense of normality, it is worth taking a moment to recognise that the pandemic has been a challenging time for mental wellbeing. Businesses have stepped up efforts, raised awareness of issues and provided critical support, enabling employees to feel more confident and able to speak up.

Now, with plans underway to emerge from lockdown it is crucial that action is taken to ensure that the mental health lessons that have come out of the last year become a permanent fixture within workplace culture.

Reflecting on the last year

New research from the Office for National Statistics shows that one in five adults experienced some form of depression in 2021 – more than double the level recorded before the pandemic. Women and younger adults are most affected, with 43% of women aged 16 to 29 and 26% of men of the same age experiencing symptoms.

Other recent research from the CIPD stated 70% of employees were working outside of contracted hours or using annual leave to catch up on work and many organisations were not taking action to address these issues.

The blurring of the lines between home life and work life means some feel they cannot switch off and often work longer hours or do not take screen breaks. This has resulted rising presenteeism with people not taking time off even if they are unwell and rising levels of depression.

The impact of the pandemic is likely to be felt for years and employers need to act and continue to support people’s mental wellbeing and be able to recognise the symptoms of poor mental health and to encourage a culture of openness on the issue.

As workplaces start to return to normal it is vital employers understand the impact that the last 14 months may have had on people. While they may not previously have felt they needed to have policies in place to support mental health and wellbeing, it is clear this must be a priority moving forwards because employees need to know they have support should they need it.

Continued support

Employers can support their employee’s mental wellbeing in several ways. For example, the Mental Health Foundation chose nature as the theme of these year’s Mental Health Awareness Week. The charity highlights the benefits of nature for mental health. Their research showed that going for walks outside was one of the top coping strategies for people during the pandemic, and 45% reported being in green spaces had been vital for their mental health.

Building on this, employers can incorporate simple messages such as encouraging people to take breaks and get outside for a walk at lunchtime or discover the nature in their back garden or on the street while enjoying a coffee break. Small acts like organising a Zoom/Teams fun meeting, or directing employees to available counselling and support services, can make a big difference.

Investing in your people and supporting their mental wellbeing will ensure you have a happy, motivated and productive workforce, something which is essential to ensure the business recovers as the economy starts to pick up.

The key to implementing steps like these has been regular feedback from employees and putting in place measures that can help manage resource and flag pressure points. Many organisations introduced feedback mechanisms, listening exercises or surveys to understand how employees were coping. These steps can all continue post-pandemic and will help people continue to talk about wellbeing with their teams and managers.

two men discussing work