2020 was characterised by tremendous change, uncertainty, pain and loss but, for many, it was also a time of growth - both personal and professional - and reflection.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said 19% of adults reported some form of depression during June, compared with 10% in the nine months to March 2021.
Across 2020 and the beginning of 2021, the issue of Mental Health hasn’t been out of the news. From Caroline Flack’s suicide sparking change in the world of reality TV and Social Media in February 2020, to Meghan Markle’s and Prince Harry’s Oprah recent interview documenting the Duchess’s struggle with her own mental health.
Along with the pandemic, these have bought the question of employee mental health and wellbeing to the forefront of business priorities in 2021.
As offices began to close and employees began to work remotely, HR teams were thrust into the spotlight. All of a sudden, the future of businesses hinged on the actions taken and strategies devised by HR teams and the way in which employees adapted to this tsunami of overnight transformation.
For many, working from home was a dream come true. On the surface, it meant less time and money spent on travel, a potential rise in disposable income, and the possibility to have a better work/life balance. The reality, however, is markedly different.
The pandemic has changed the workplace forever, adding pressure to an already stressed-out workforce. In a post-pandemic world, businesses are making drastic changes in how they work, company leaders cite a number of trends and predictions that will be essential for businesses to survive. Making discussions of mental health a standard practice and de-stigmatising mental health issues are at the top of the list along with prioritising self-care and workplace wellness.
By the end of 2020, the top priority for 65% of HR Leaders was employee health and wellbeing compared to 2019 which had shifted from recruitment and retention.
Other priorities for the year ahead are employee engagement and experience (63%). It is easy to see that the impact of COVID-19 has led many HR professionals to re-examine their strategies and the way in which they look after, support and engage their employees.
With many employees still working remotely, HR teams, together with senior leadership, have had to devise new ways to maintain meaningful connections with their people and ensure they don’t become alienated from the business.
The Data Doesn’t Lie
A SWNS research study, conducted by OnePoll, on behalf of Vthrive The Vitamin Shoppe ™ CBD, found that 6 in 10 employees said they were"Zoomed out" just 12 weeks into the pandemic with the average respondent spending an additional two hours and four minutes per day looking at a screen. And 68% said Zoom fatigue has added to their current stresses. Another recent poll conducted by LHH found that 92% of respondents felt burned out in the month of November.
The good news is that many business leaders insist this unprecedented mental health crisis requires companies to make mental health and wellness a priority. Mary-Clare Race, Chief Innovation Officer at LHH, said, “With offices now fully virtual for the foreseeable future, most companies, managers and senior leadership are tasked with the new challenge of prioritizing mental health remotely.”
What can you be doing?
One of the biggest ways companies can support mental health is to encourage employees to take full advantage of personal time off, mental health days and holiday days. Nearly 30% of employees report their time-off policies are more restricted during the pandemic.
A Monster study also reported almost half of workers didn’t use all of their PTO last year. Claire Barnes, Monster Worldwide Senior Vice-President of Human Resources, reacted to these findings. “Many companies, Monster included, have made an effort to reinforce the importance of taking a break. We’ve added PTO and mental health days to further encourage employees to decompress and take some well-deserved time off.”
The burnout that results from working from home and the limited boundaries it creates (bedroom offices, longer hours, fewer breaks) will continue to impact employee wellness. Companies that celebrate time off and resting will become the norm as opposed to working long hours and never taking PTO which will soon become a thing of the past. Many also predicted access to therapy, meditation and alternative forms of wellness will become essential employee benefits in 2021.
There will be a shift in healthy lifestyle changes. Around 71% gained weight throughout 2020. Respondents said weight gain has created mental stress and fatigue with 52% feeling down about the way they look. Plus 47% who gained weight said their self-esteem has dropped since last March.
Employers who design employee well-being programs with the understanding that physical health and mental health are inextricably interconnected will be rewarded with better performing, more productive and loyal employees and lower healthcare costs.
There should be more emphasis on compassionate leadership. In the coming year, more and more business leaders, like Scott Shute, are calling for this (checking in and asking employees what they need and listening to what they say).
For instance, people can start their day or their meetings with a few deep breaths to get centred, go for a mid-day walk or eat a meal while being fully present. It could mean offering personal time off for mental health days, no meeting days, discussion sessions on mindfulness or managing burnout, online learning resources, etc.
Despite the 2020 setbacks, 71% of management feel a renewed sense of optimism as we approach the lifting of lockdown restrictions and are beginning to set goals, get projects back on track and turn business goals into reality in 2021. Throughout this year you should be an advocate for a more humanised workplace where workers are treated as people first, employees second, “Employees want to work for a company that values them, that has their best interests in mind.” As employers, when we're aware of the unique needs of this time and meet those needs with a true spirit of compassion, we'll all have a better chance to thrive.’’