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Mental health must be top priority in workplace healthcare

Maryam Meddin, CEO -The Soke

According to the World Health Organisation, in recent years depression has crept up the ladder to become the most common cause of ill health & disability worldwide and in the UK, at any time, one in four adults reports themselves as suffering from depression or anxiety or phobia or OCD.

Already an existing societal and economical issue to contend with, there is absolutely no doubt that the recent pandemic has exacerbated the problem. Any major event that results in widespread fear, grief and isolation is going to have a profound impact on the psychological wellbeing of large segments of the population – all the more so when a society is collectively expected to absorb any oppressive feelings, whilst managing the threat that catastrophic events may recur if it dares to stop worrying.

Undoubtedly, a significant factor contributing to the psychological fallout we’re experiencing is the widespread financial insecurity that the pandemic has caused to permeate through almost every sector of UK business. The effects are not just personally distressing for the individuals involved, but likely to impact the collective morale, ambition and productivity of organisations as a whole.

In the event of this likely scenario, and in the eye of the storm as ever, will be the long-suffering HR department, required to balance the best interests of both employer and employee whilst looking into an uncertain future and simultaneously managing their own anxieties.

So what can individuals burdened with the task of looking after an organisation’s most precious resource – its human capital – do to mitigate the non-physical harm caused by Covid-19?

Incorporate Mental Health into your employee wellbeing policies

There is an imperative for employers to support the psychological recovery of their workforce in the same way that they would previously have nurtured their career development and progression.

Every large organisation talks about regarding their employees as part of their corporate ‘family’ but measures that follow-through in practice what the organisation claims in theory demonstrate that they are willing to put their money where their mouth is. This is an investment that will ultimately show great returns, not just in terms of the bottom line, but also in adding brand value in an era when doing good is as important as doing well.

HR Directors should use their influence to affect policy by persuading management not to assume “business as usual” when people return to work. They should prepare the leadership to anticipate a workforce that’s continuing to reverberate from the shock of the last few months and to be ready to invest in a plan to deal with it.

So, what would “The Plan” look like? The most basic solution is to make it easy for those who need support to access it. This means providing clear and easy-to-understand information; it means training everyone – not just team leaders – to be aware of how their colleagues are faring psychologically and to know how to respond, when necessary, in a way that’s both sensitive and helpful.

Put mental health on par with physical health

Going further, The Plan could stretch to walking the walk of normalising mental health issues – something that every organisation proclaims the wish to do – by incorporating it into company time off policies. Sometimes having a bad day due to depression, anxiety or life events, can be far more debilitating than a runny nose, but it’s the latter that we unquestioningly accept as a justification for a ‘sick day’.

A step like this also leads to the added safeguard for the person in the team who might repeatedly be taking time off work for depression or anxiety. It gives HR managers the opportunity to ensure that that person is receiving the help they need in good time, rather than waiting for them to really hit a wall from which recovery can be far more difficult.

A policy like this cannot be disingenuous – employees must feel that being open about having a ‘mental health day’ will not be career limiting, which means that there must be a sincere effort from the top to allow open mindedness to permeate the culture of the organisation.

Share information as transparently as possible with the workforce

This is crucial in creating a sense of trust. Studies show that employees who feel informed have a stronger sense of loyalty and pride about the companies that they work for. This makes them more prepared to show up in darker times as well as more willing to absorb difficult information, feeling that they have been privy to the company’s status and considerations throughout.

The effect of extending a company wellness scheme to cover behavioural health is not just easing passage to an essential service in tumultuous times, it’s hugely effective in breaking down stigmas and eliminating fears that exist for many in admitting that they might be struggling. It also has the potential to fundamentally improve the relationship between employer and employee and has the added benefit of helping to build a healthier society in the long run.

We are experiencing an unprecedented period when companies are being presented with the opportunity to make their mark as bad, good or great employers. An HR department that is given the freedom to demonstrate compassion and responsibility through its policies is an HR department working for an organisation that’s going to be made stronger, more productive and ultimately more resilient by a loyal workforce who will not hesitate to mirror the sentiment if they’re called upon to do so.

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