Essential guide to supporting employee mental health

Dr. Steven takes us through his top tips on how HR leaders and employers can better support their staff whilst working from home, whilst helping employees improve their health not just at work but outside too.

Since the start of the pandemic, our lives have changed dramatically, ‘socialising’ has been done via video and through an endless stream of virtual coffees, happy hours, quizzes, and family gatherings on Zoom and the question “Are you well?” was the preface to most of our conversations. Being ‘well’ relies heavily on the social aspect of our lives and ‘social wellbeing’ is a distinct category in most academic frameworks that focus on mental health. Even the World Health Organisation counts ‘community contribution’ as one of its definitions of good mental health. So it stands to reason that the heavy social restrictions that have been in place for the best part of the last year have had a huge impact on people’s lives.

One of the places this is perhaps most evident is in our workplaces, which operate as a type of social community. The post-pandemic world has highlighted our need for the thing that arguably makes us most human – each other, but because interaction and connection are so fundamental to our very nature, it can be easy to take it for granted. To make sure that we don’t, it’s important that we know how to increase employee connection in these challenging times and as a result, thrive as HR leaders.  

Encourage activities where staff can share and reflect
To promote connections, it’s never been more important to build a habit of gratitude and sharing between staff. To create this kind of environment, HR leaders and management teams should be encouraging employees to finish each day or week by sharing what they are grateful for, or a project or piece of work that’s gone well. Perhaps do an exercise where colleagues share something they value about one another, or something about their home life too, but at the same time, be respectful of those who would prefer to be involved just to listen.

For those colleagues who live alone, this occasional feeling of ‘family’ could be really invaluable. Overall, the act of sharing builds empathy, which will strengthen the connection between employees and make your teams stronger in the long-run.

Be helpful and give where you can
It’s often said that the best way to help ourselves is to help other people. Studies show that volunteering improves mental health, so maybe now’s the time for your team to choose a charity or a community project to support.

This doesn’t have to involve a lot of free time or additional effort, it could be as simple as creating team challenges and introducing a friendly element of competitiveness that will result in achieving both greater productivity, as well as donating to a good cause. For example, Garmin EMEA recently participated in a team challenge which saw nine teams battle it out for the highest number of steps across three weeks. The winning team received a €5,000 donation to their chosen charity and the glory of being crowned the “Garmin Health EMEA Charity Challenge Champion”. This is just an example of how HR can bring teams together and have them work towards a common goal, while also giving back.   

Know your team and yourself
Each great team has its own unique make-up, with a diverse mix of personalities so bolstering colleague connections, especially if you’re in a leadership position, can really help with performance. Do the introverts need more encouragement to come out of their shells? Would a one-to-one catch-up session help you find out how they’re really coping? Have you considered if the extroverts may need more team interaction than others? 

People may be vulnerable for different reasons. Take some time to check in with yourself, too. How mindful are you of your own behaviour, and how is that behaviour impacting others? If you can take steps to understand yourself and your own health and wellbeing as a leader, you’ll be better equipped to support your teams.

Help teams find their common purpose
A crisis can bring out the worst and best in human nature – recognise that the best in human nature is rising to the challenge. 

Some organisations have reported huge improvements in engagement and productivity when employees have seen the meaning of their work in action, through helping others in a time of crisis. At this moment, for all of us, purpose is king – it allows us to strip away all the non-essential ‘stuff’ that may have accumulated over time. How does the work you do make others’ lives better? Encourage employees to ask big questions like this and find meaning in a shared purpose. When you think along these lines and strive to do even more, no amount of disconnection will be too great an obstacle.

Be open to flexibility
Most employees say that working flexibly improves their productivity, so, as a team leader, try to be understanding of the fact that a flexible working week could result in improvements all-round. 

It’s also about being understanding and willing to compromise when people are experiencing difficulty with new routines and finding a middle ground if certain needs can’t immediately be met. To achieve this, businesses should encourage goal orientated thinking, where staff are focused on what they need to accomplish, rather than what time they log on or off, as well as allowing for some flexibility as long as employees are clear about what tasks need to be prioritised.  

Listen and understand individual needs
Sometimes, the best thing that you can do as an employer, leader, or manager is to hear your employees and understand their individual situations, thoughts, feelings, and needs. Many can get lost in trying to find the answer by researching and looking at what others are doing to support their staff, which can be useful, but there needs to be a level of listening involved too.  

Our connection and relationships with other people is as fundamental in the workplace as it is in life generally and to maintain our mental health, we need to both understand this and take steps to strengthen these bonds. Although the current pandemic has posed great challenges, it also gives us the opportunity to fully realise and improve practices such as communication, understanding and building strong networks of support – so the companies who embrace this type of thinking now, will most likely be the leaders of the future.

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