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By Phil Sproston, Country Manager - UK & Ireland, Top Employers Institute

Work, rest and play? The challenge ahead for mental health

The COVID-19 lockdown has shown many UK businesses and employees at their best. The relocation to home working has been undertaken at speed and scale. Employees have responded impressively, with most showing a heartening flexibility and humanity towards one another in challenging circumstances. Ahead of all organisations, however, lies a long, hot summer of new mental health challenges.

Work

The Mental Health Foundation and LinkedIn recently surveyed more than 1,000 HR professionals in UK companies with staff working at home due to the pandemic. Although some drew some positives from wholesale home working, more than half (54%) said they believed mental health issues, such as burnout and stress, had increased. Worryingly, nearly 4 in 5 (79%) felt that the arrival of work into many homes had encouraged a new form of remote “presentee-ism". This meant that employees felt either tempted or obliged to be online and available to colleagues as much as possible, even when unwell or working well beyond their contracted hours. These fears seem justified: the same study also polled more than 2,000 adults working from home during lockdown. Nearly 9 in 10 (86%) said that remote working had had a negative impact on their health and had produced the equivalent of an extra day per week of working hours during lockdown.

It doesn’t have to be this way of course. Among our certified UK Top Employers, surveyed prior to the pandemic, we found that nearly half (43%) already explicitly discouraged overtime working by staff, while a third (33%) actively discouraged the use of e-mail outside office hours.

Rest and Play

To work longer hours is of course not good for productivity - there is no shortage of research showing that employees need time to rest and recuperate to be at their best. And yet recovery remains a critical yet undervalued factor in workplace performance. Burnout – defined by workplace psychologists as the loss of meaning on one’s work coupled with mental, emotional or physical exhaustion - has several phases. It begins with a “honeymoon” period, not unlike the early weeks of lockdown, where employees respond well to a change in circumstances with commitment, energy and creativity. As the novelty wanes, however, increasingly frequent and habitual periods of burnout emerge if left unchecked.

This summer will present another major challenge, with many households suffering clear financial hardship and travel restrictions. Employees may be either unable or unwilling to take the traditional summer break. The result could be that the household serves as an unchanging and uninspiring triple backdrop for work, rest and play. Organisations can, however, set a good example by making sure that even if workers cannot “get away from it all” they can at least ensure that a complete break from work means precisely that. This begins by insisting that a decent break from work is taken - over 4 in 5 (83%) of UK Top Employer organisations already gave managers explicit responsibility to encourage team members to use their vacation time prior to the pandemic. Senior leaders need to set the best possible example by taking – and being seen to take – their full holiday allocation and encouraging others to do the same whenever possible.

The response from AkzoNobel

Nearly 2 in 3 (63%) Top Employers in the UK offer burnout recovery support programmes if the worst happens, but of course the real objective of mental health challenges lies in prevention - to make sure that employees never get to that point. For example, UK Top Employer AkzoNobel, winners of the Silver Award in the Mind Wellbeing Index for their work on mental health over the last year, are focusing on the next phase of the crisis. The business ensures that it keeps in touch with people on furlough or who are working remotely. It has also increased its virtual training and online self-help offerings to ensure that there are ample opportunities for colleagues to connect and support each other. One key learning from lockdown for AkzoNobel has been the need to check the pulse of the business regularly through short surveys that work out what is making people feel safe, what is concerning them and then what to do to address any issues.

AkzoNobel also appreciate that some colleagues will feel nervous about returning to its offices while others will feel more relaxed. So the business will not be insisting that everyone returns at the same time. There has been a clear commitment to work with those who have higher levels of anxiety, with every possible measure taken for reassurance. By contrast, those who struggled with isolation from lockdown will be able to return sooner if they prefer.

Conclusion

Lockdown has presented many mental health challenges and it is important for organisations to understand that this summer will produce many more. The COVID-19 response showed many UK businesses and employees at their best and the return to work, if handled with care and thought, can also further build the bonds of trust and humanity within UK workforces this summer.