Employers urged to ‘step up’ mental health support for staff

Out-Law News | 12 Nov 2020 | 10:25 am |

Kate Dodd tells HRNews how HR can fill the gaps in employers’ wellbeing strategies on the back of latest YouGov research into mental health.
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  • Transcript

    Employers have been urged to prioritise employees’ wellbeing after publication of a new survey showing that almost four in 10 staff say they have experienced poor mental health related to work in the past year. According to the YouGov survey of more than 3,600 employees which was commissioned by Business in the Community and Bupa, employers are turning to their employer of support. The headline findings are that 41% of employees have experienced poor mental health related to work in the past year with more than half of those affected putting it down to pressure at work. However, the good news is that support for has improved - employees said they felt that most colleagues and most line managers are being considerate when it comes to their mental wellbeing. Personnel Today covers the story, and quotes Bupa’s commercial director for UK insurance, Mark Allan, saying that many employers had succeeded in “potentially limited” the mental health impact of the pandemic on staff through their wellbeing strategies but, he said, gaps remained. We will come on to look at how HR can help to fill those gaps shortly but first we need understand this from the employees’ perspective. So what are the challenges employees face right now? It’s a question I put to Kate Dodd, a lawyer who specialises in this area. Kate joined me by video link:

    Kate Dodd: "Well, this second lockdown really is the biggest challenge, I think, that's facing people. Across the whole of Europe at the moment we're seeing most countries going back into some form of lockdown, many of them moving in and out of lockdown, and of course that's creating a huge amount of uncertainty and challenge for businesses and for their employees. Now, you know, every employee, of course, is different and I think that there is a definite need for that to be recognised, that each employee has got their own personal set of circumstances - lots of employees are shielding, some employees don't feel able to go back into the office, some feel that they need to be back in the office and they want to be back in the office, and of course, it is such an uncertain time. News of the vaccine, of course, is hugely welcomed and really something that I think will start to make people feel better but really, as we start to go into this period now of the winter months, we've got shorter days, we've got people who, if they are working from home, are really spending a long time sitting at screen, they're not getting outside, they're not seeing any natural light in their day and that, of course has a huge effect on wellbeing. We've got people who are going back into the office who are trying their best to keep going to fulfil their obligations, but they may have other things that are happening within their own personal lives - family members, of course, who could be being furloughed again, financial difficulties as well, of course, is the absolute uncertainty of what 2021 is going to bring for all of us. We cannot, we cannot overestimate the effect that this has on peoples’ wellbeing. During the last lockdown in Europe, we had the summer months, we had spring months, we had unprecedentedly good weather, and it's not going to be like that this time around people. A lot of people have spent their savings, their rainy day funds are running out and this therefore is going to be challenging in ways that we haven't seen before. Of course, we know that that already the news recently has been on unprecedented number of redundancies and that will continue – restructuring, redundancies, people watching what's happening to their customers, their clients, and of course we know that so many businesses are affected, you know, massively dependent and interdependent on other businesses. Brexit looming on the horizon, again, creates all sorts of uncertainty for people and I think that is probably the watchword at the moment – uncertainty - and of course the anxiety that goes along with that.”

    Joe Glavina: “Yes, uncertainty and anxiety, that sums it up well Kate. So what practical steps can HR professionals take to help with that?” 

    HR professionals should really be looking to see what they can do to recognise every individual's different circumstances and of course that sounds quite simple, but it's not. I think it's time to really start to check back in with people and HR professionals can't do this themselves. I think it's an important time for business to really be talking to their line managers and re-emphasising that need to have those check-in conversations. A lot of the time, we know that managers try to push this kind of thing onto HR and they say, well look, this is why we've got an HR function, this is, you know, this is what these people do best, they're professionals, they can do it for us, and we know that's just not going to be able to be practical. You know, we've got HR teams who themselves, of course, are really stressed - if there are restructuring redundancies going on it's the HR teams who are going to be at the front of that, at the centre of that and they cannot possibly be expected to be having these wellbeing conversations, these check ins, with all of the employees in their business particularly, of course, where you've got people working from home, or a mixture of, you know, remote working and office working. So I think the watchword for HR at this time is to make sure that they are re-engaging with line managers, that they are reminding line managers of their obligations and the fact that their obligations of course include a duty of care to the wellbeing of their of their staff so that they are recognising that this is a really difficult time, that they are reconnecting with people maybe they haven't spoken to for a few weeks. It will surprise you, because a lot of the time HR will be doing these kind of check ins with their line managers who say yes of course I'm having conversations with my teams and yet team members reporting routinely that weeks or even months can pass without them having any direct conversation with their line manager. So this is a real time to redouble those efforts to make sure that line managers are talking to their teams to make sure that they're encouraging them in healthy practices, getting outside, taking breaks away from their screen and, of course, for those employees who are struggling for any particular reason, maybe it is that they are struggling with the commute, maybe that they are shielding members of their family potentially living in multi-generational family homes, etcetera, making sure that line managers are not just trying to apply one rule for everybody, but that are really taking into account the individual circumstances of their employees, because we know that a vaccine is around the corner, hopefully, and we know that when it comes down to it, in 2021, 2022 and beyond, employees are going to remember how they were treated, they are going to remember what their line managers said to them and how they engaged with them and how well cared for they felt. So it really is a crucial time.”

    Kate has written analysis on this subject and you can find her article: “Coronavirus: the hidden impact on employee mental health” on the Outlaw website.