Supporting employees’ mental health in lockdown

Beth Hall, Senior Client Success Manager and Mental Health First Aider from O.C Tanner Europe, considers the impact COVID-19 is having on employee health and how employers can help.

It’s not a stretch to think a pandemic that uproots normal work life could cause feelings of anxiety and depression among employees. It’s also understandable that those feelings might intensify as the COVID-19 crisis looms forward, after all the end isn’t yet in sight. In fact, latest research from O.C Tanner found that between week 1 and week 3 of lockdown, the number of individuals experiencing depression jumped from 51 per cent to 60.6 per cent. But this doesn’t mean there aren’t actions employers can take to help employees deal with negative emotions and escalating anxiety. With Mental Health Awareness Week putting mental health under the spotlight even more than usual, here are the top seven ways employers can best support employees’ mental health in lockdown.

Encourage a healthy work/life balance

This may be easier said than done as employees are juggling spouses and children being at home as well as home-schooling needs. However, employers must discourage staff working long hours with few breaks as this can lead to depression and burnout. Perhaps leaders could introduce virtual coffee breaks and lunches, in which colleagues can enjoy non-work-based interaction over a sandwich. Fitness breaks should also become part of the new working day, with leaders championing online fitness sessions and perhaps even running some themselves.

Make time for open and regular dialogue 

Employees that report frequent one-to-one conversations with their supervisor are 77 per cent less likely to be depressed according to O.C. Tanner research. When one-to-ones are done well,  there is also a 27 per cent decrease in employee burnout and a 430 per cent increased odds that an employee will be highly engaged. For one-to-ones to be effective, they must be relaxed and both parties need to be involved in crafting the agenda and preparing for the meeting.  Leaders who take the time to prepare for and co-create meaningful, informal and frequent one-to-one conversations build stronger connections with their people and are quicker to identify any wellbeing issues.

Tailor communications for the employee

It should never be assumed that one style of communication is suitable for all, especially in the current trying circumstances. Leaders shouldn’t force FaceTime or Zoom on people if they prefer other ways of staying in touch. Perhaps a simple phone call would be preferable and less intrusive for some employees whereas others may relish the face-to-face interaction of Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Being sensitive to individuals’ needs is therefore key and helps to reduce unnecessary stress.

Make outreach easily accessible

If employees need to speak to someone other than their line manager, do they know how to reach them when in lockdown? Contact details for mental health first aiders should be kept updated, posted on the intranet and regularly circulated.

Offer employees support and guidance, but not diagnosis 

It’s not the role of business leaders, managers or mental health first aiders (MHFAs) to provide a diagnosis when an employee reaches out for help. If a colleague is quick to suggest an employee is stressed or burned-out, this may do more harm than good. Instead, leaders and MHFAs should be trained to listen and then provide support and guidance if necessary. With many employees still working in isolation, this is more important than ever.

Focus on creating a ‘family’ culture

A toxic workplace culture increases moderate to severe burnout by 157 per cent and even the smallest lapses in workplace culture can lead to mild burnout. This is according to O.C. Tanner’s 2020 Global Culture Report. By focusing on creating a supportive ‘family’ culture in which employees feel psychologically safe, cared for and valued by their colleagues, they are far less likely to experience deteriorating mental health. So, focus on fun and effective ways to keep people connected while in lockdown such as a daily team quiz, a weekly bake-off and fancy dress Fridays.

Recognise people’s efforts and results regularly

Appreciating and recognising staff is key to elevating their self-worth, engagement levels and ‘sense of belonging’. And during a time of crisis when people are dealing with isolation and the associated stresses, it’s more important than ever for leaders to frequently praise and recognise effort. In fact, O.C Tanner research found that employees who had received recognition in the past seven days had experienced a 84 per cent reduced rate of depression.

Isolation shouldn’t mean isolated

Never underestimate the impact a few simple changes can make on a person’s mental health, especially while in lockdown. By staying in touch, encouraging regular breaks and exercise, being mindful of each employee’s needs and showing ongoing support and appreciation, this can elevate a person’s mood while helping them to feel safe and valued. Above all, it’s key to show employees’ kindness. During a time of worry and uncertainty, reassurance and compassion are more important than ever. A kind word and a thoughtful gesture could mean so much to a colleague battling anxiety. So although most of the UK workforce is still in physical isolation, this doesn’t mean they should FEEL isolated.

About the author

Beth Hall is senior client success manager at workplace culture specialist, O.C. Tanner Europe. Her commitment to supporting people with mental health problems led to her decision to become a Mental Health First Aider (MHFA).

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