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Phil Sproston, Country Manager: UK & Ireland, Top Employers Institute
Phil Sproston, Country Manager: UK & Ireland, Top Employers Institute

Employee Stress Management through COVID-19

Stress Awareness Month has been observed every April for nearly 30 years, but this year it feels especially pertinent. The COVID-19 pandemic has plunged both work and life into a period of unprecedented disruption. Organisations and employees in the UK and around the world are undergoing a gigantic and collective “stress test”. The responses from businesses everywhere have directly impacted our individual and collective sense of what well-being really means in the face of such uncertainty.

The potential for stress has never been greater

Even before the onset of the pandemic, the Mental Health Foundation had found that nearly three-quarters (74%) of people had, during the previous year, felt so stressed that they simply felt unable to cope. One can only assume this percentage has risen sharply since - stress is a major driver of mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety and there has never been more potential for it than in recent weeks. Businesses everywhere have become acutely aware of their responsibility to allay the concerns of their employees.

During the current lockdown, so many of us have been working from home. This has been crucial to mitigate stress levels and, prior to the pandemic, our latest research showed most UK Top Employers were already offering initiatives that are now belatedly being practised everywhere. Certainly, they consistently offered flexi-time work schedules (76% of those surveyed) and compressed working hours (60%).

Fortunately, the practices of Top Employers in the UK have left them in good shape to meet the challenge during the current crisis.  Our 2020 research reveals that immediately prior to the pandemic, over 9 in 10 (91%) of Top Employers in the UK offered direct support for stress management, up from 8 in 10 (83%) only a year earlier.

So what measures have one Top Employer in the UK put in place to mitigate the impact of stress?

GroupM: Support in the fight against stress

To tackle mental and emotional stress during the pandemic, GroupM has called on 20 trained Mental Health Allies (MHAs) in its Holborn office, using a scheme that had been live since May 2019.

Prior to GroupM employees working remotely, the Allies had hosted events within the office and produced a number of useful resources for employees, including its ‘Little Book of Mental Health’, created as a definitive guide for all existing employees and in its new starter packs (both physical and now virtual). The 60-page booklet, contains a mixture of advice, support links and mindfulness practices. While staff have been at home, it has had an online version in its “SharePoint” site.

The MHAs have worked hard to educate and support the workforce, adapting to virtual support in a short space of time, and offer mental health touchpoints during a working week. This includes:-

  • Increasing the frequency of its Mental Health newsletter from monthly to weekly. Each week highlighting a different topic; from dealing with loss and grief, parenting, caring for elderly relatives and eating healthily.
  • A daily rota system for availability during three slots in a working day, should employees wish to reach out during lockdown.
  • Weekly drop-in sessions where MHAs can talk to employees about the service they offer.
  • Live-streamed weekly wellbeing sessions, involving light strengthening and stretching exercises as well as mindfulness, meditation practices and breathing techniques.
  • Regular lunch and learn sessions changed to virtual meetings.

Conclusion

So as we near the end of Stress Awareness Month we encourage all employers to think and act to tackle the causes of stress in their organisation created by the COVID-19 pandemic. To tackle stress among the workforce has never been so important - and what is most encouraging is the sheer variety of brilliant stress-busting initiatives, such as those from GroupM, that support employees in rising to the challenges.

Now in its 29th year, the Top Employers Institute Certification recognises leading organisations around the world for their commitment to their employees and fantastic people practices.