The pandemic has undeniably influenced all of our lives… with business leaders and their staff being presented with their own array of challenges because of it.
“There’s two main topics that keep coming up in my conversations with startup and scaleup leaders – adapting to hybrid working and coping with high operational demand,” says Alan Furley, Director at recruitment consultancy ISL.
“It feels most companies want to strike a balance of time together physically and working remotely, and without a tried and tested approach to fall back on, it’s challenging to know where to set parameters and where to give choice.”
Some of the concerns that CEOs are having regarding hybrid working include fears of lower productivity and worse career progression, although others have recognised that it can offer a better work-life balance, which can lead to happier, more productive employees.
“When it comes to staff, they are also going through significant transitions and challenges,” says Dr. Nick Zygouris, Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Director of Mental Health at Health Management, an occupational health and training provider.
“These range from working from home, which for some employees worked well as it allowed them to rebalance their family life, while for others it didn’t work as well as it exacerbated a sense of loneliness and isolation or forced them into adverse domestic conditions.
Dr. Nick Zygouris
“For new employees, getting introduced to a company was also difficult as many companies lacked experience in conducting remote inductions effectively. Remote inductions also provide limited opportunity for “watercooler conversations”, which help build relationships at a more personal level.”
Regardless of whether hybrid working has been successful for business leaders and staff or not, it’s still a new way of working and things are constantly changing, something which Dr. Nick Zygouris, believes is one of the main challenges right now:
“There are a number of different challenges business leaders and employees face. The landscape is constantly changing, and they have to constantly adjust to the new economy and the changing demands of that new economy.
“We are coming out of lockdown and this understandably generates uncertainty and associated feelings of anxiety. We also experience further adjustments to the economy due to Brexit. Business leaders have to make difficult decisions and predictions at an unprecedented time. They may feel the full weight of the world on their shoulders in times like these.
“Also, the pandemic has probably made them even more aware of the financial demands and constraints that their employees are under, and that adjusting to the new economy may require significant restructuring to ensure financial viability. For any business leader, these can be very difficult decisions to make and some tell us that they lose sleep over it.”
According to Deloitte’s ‘Mental health and employers report’ that was published in January 2020, one in six workers experiences a mental health problem at any one time. With this number likely to have increased as a result of the pandemic, it raises important questions about whether companies are doing enough to support their own wellbeing and that of their staff.
“Because of covid, more discussions have taken place on mental health in the workplace, normalising mental health and reducing stigma. We’ve seen more businesses wanting to do more to support staff mental health and wellbeing,” says Dr. Nick Zygouris.
“Mental Health First Aid training is one measure that we’ve seen a bigger uptake of. This is a standardised training that is delivered in the workplace and teaches employees about the different mental health conditions and how they can provide immediate support and signpost colleagues who may be experiencing a crisis in the workplace.
“We’ve also seen a bigger uptake for our mental health awareness training for managers, which gives managers an overview of the causes of mental illness and how they can have constructive and helpful conversations with employees who are experiencing mental health problems. There is also a vital element teaching managers how to self-care to ensure that manager’s mental health and wellbeing is not overlooked either.”
“But is that enough? Whilst it’s great to see more mental health training taking place in the workplace, and we’d encourage all businesses to explore training options, training should be a starting point.
“For example, those mental health first aiders or managers trained require ongoing support and upskilling, so they don’t lose touch and confidence. All staff trained report high confidence to support colleagues’ mental health after the training event, but additional training and learning opportunities are required if this confidence is going to be sustained in the long run.”
“In our training events, managers tell us that sometimes they are not sure what to say when an employee says they’re feeling anxious, depressed or suicidal. They lack the confidence to facilitate these discussions without training, and some fear about saying the wrong thing that could make the situation worse for the employee.
“Research has consistently indicated that the biggest driver for wellbeing in the workplace is the relationship employees have with their manager. So, investing in upskilling managers to support and maintain this relationship is really going to yield a lot of gains in terms of productivity and staff retention. With one in four personally affected by mental illness, knowing how to have effective conversations about these matters is crucial.”
Whilst some may argue that looking after the wellbeing of your staff is important for ethical reasons, it’s also impossible to ignore the advantages for your business this might have. As highlighted by the Deloitte report, for every £1 that an employer invests in mental health, they see an average return of £5.
According to a study by Westfield Health, mental health-related absenteeism cost the UK £14bn in 2020 too.
However, according to Dr. Nick Zygouris: “From a business leader’s perspective, it may be difficult to prioritise increasing investment on staff wellbeing when faced with multiple competing investment demands.
“Nevertheless, there is a wealth of research linking employee wellbeing with increased productivity, innovation, staff retention and employee engagement, but still the return-on-investment case can still be a difficult one to push through”.
“Having difficulty in proving a return-on-investment often lays with the lack of regular data collection by employers on employee wellbeing, productivity, innovation and staff engagement, a practice I’d encourage all business leaders set in place.”
So, with there being a clear case for why business leaders should want to look after themselves and their staff, one question remains: how can they create a positive mental health and wellbeing strategy within their work environment?
“Much has been written about being authentic and bringing your whole self at work, and part of that means to communicate your own vulnerability, both as a business leader and as a manager. I think this can create an environment where employees feel safe and enabled to talk about their own mental health,” says Dr Nick Zygouris.
“So, it’s important that business leaders are visibly modelling some of the wellbeing behaviours they would like their employees to do. If they model practicing wellbeing and selfcare, and at the same time create an environment through policies and culture that enables employees to do the same, then their employees are more likely to follow.”
Dr Nick Zygouris isn’t the only one that believes leading by example is important; at recruitment consultancy IRL, they put this into practice and saw real benefits for their team.
“My business partner, Henry, led on trialling Friday afternoons off last year to help the wellbeing of our team,” says Alan Furley.
“He was keen to show that it was a genuine offer, not one designed to give us a signal on who wasn’t demonstrating the right work ethic! So, as part of that he used the time to go running and made sure to share that with the team. That prompted others to do the same, with photos of cycling, others going for a walk, even one doing the cleaning – whatever helped their wellbeing!
“We’ve now permanently shifted to a 4.5-day week and that’s something I’d definitely recommend to help mental health. Having the choice of how to spend that time is really valuable.”
“Finally, leaders don’t need to shoulder all the responsibility”, continues Alan. “The workforce cares much more about mental health, which can mean that some of your team would love to support more in this area.
“That might be organising team check ins, signposting support, or taking the lead on sharing. Supporting your team’s mental health isn’t a challenge you need to face alone as a leader.”
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