England has entered a second national lockdown. We’re dealing with a lot of uncertainty in our lives right now and it’s fair to say this is a stressful time for many. Employee mental health has been a focus for lots of employers, especially in recent years. But with the extra pressures and difficulties many of us are facing this year, managing mental health is more important than ever.

Goodwill and loyalty are assets to any business. Maintaining and caring for your employees’ mental health is an important factor in promoting both. Providing the tools, forums and resources to encourage this should be part of your business strategy. A team that feels supported is invaluable.

Burnout

The pandemic has affected our working habits. We’re working longer hours than before and burnout is a more real threat than ever. Meaningful help is about supporting your team in a preventative way and acting early when you see signs of problems. Take time to acknowledge the added requirements and the toll the change on day-to-day lives is having. And importantly, make sure your team is aware that you’re thinking about these things by opening up discussions with them.

The signs of burnout aren’t immediately obvious, even to someone suffering from it themselves. Look out for the following symptoms:

  • Trouble concentrating
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Exhaustion
  • Poor attitude
  • Irritability
  • Depression

Managers should be aware of changes in behaviour. This is only possible if teams are communicating regularly, and informally as well as professionally. The ‘water cooler’ has been completely removed with remote working, so think of ways you can recreate that setting. Could you have regular, relaxed catch ups? A Slack channel to share non-work related content or stories? Touchpoints like this make it a bit easier to judge people’s moods and wellbeing.

Prevention is better than a cure

Managing burnout isn’t the goal here: it should be your priority to create an environment in which it doesn’t happen. Giving your employees the tools to recognise burnout and the means of avoiding it themselves is extremely important. Send emails, slack announcements and offer team sessions about mental health. Normalise talk about it in the workplace.

A significant factor in feeling overwhelmed is feeling like you’re struggling through alone. Without regular face-to-face interactions, requests and tasks can start to feel more consuming. So absolutely make sure you communicate what the signs of burnout are, but crucially, also try to encourage breaks and separation from work. Consider what resources and forums you can offer. There are a lot of successful mental health and meditation apps out there, such as Headspace. Could this be part of your employee offering?

Holiday policy is difficult to enforce right now. The chances of taking two weeks off to jet around is about as relevant right now as wearing a suit and tie. Taking time off while staying in the same four walls you work in is hardly an exciting or relaxing prospect. However, it still has value and can stop people feeling overwhelmed. Make sure managers are encouraging their teams to take time off and promoting the benefits of this downtime. Set targets, even if it’s suggesting long weekends, and try to make sure they’re stuck to.

The cost of mental health

According to the Centre for Mental Health, the average employee takes seven days off sick each year. Around 40% of these are for mental health reasons. Being more proactive in avoiding these situations makes pastoral as well as economic sense for any employer.

In the UK, absenteeism costs the economy about £8.4 billion a year. Presenteeism, on the other hand, costs us nearly twice as much at £15.1 billion. The latter is more of a problem amongst higher paid positions and impacts productivity. Managing people’s mental health better has been proven to improve both of these issues.

When BT invested in their mental health strategy, they saw their absence rate for sickness decrease from 2.29% in April 2013 to 2.11% the following year. It may not seem like a vast difference but when you consider the size of the BT workforce, it counts for a significant number of people. Their strategy is based on prevention, early intervention and rehabilitation. BT saw that 92% of employees returned safely to their roles after using the company-funded mental rehabilitation service. Recently, 81% of BT employees ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ that they felt their employer cared about their health, with the majority saying it made them feel valued. It pays to show that you care.

Change happens from the top

Senior leadership being upfront and open is key in improving the mental health of all teams. Even when it comes to taking holiday, seeing managers and more senior members of the team using theirs encourages the rest of the company.

According to Mind.org, 30% of staff don’t feel they can talk openly with their line manager if they feel stressed. Improving middle management training helps to make sure teams are better supported and establishes trust.

Our working lives are longer than ever before and our workforce is very multigenerational. Startups often see young people heading up senior leadership positions, so making sure proper training is provided is exceptionally important. We’re dealing now with Gen Z, millennials, Gen X and baby boomers that are delaying retirement, all sharing the same workspaces. Adapting and improving support for the diversity of needs in these groups is key.

Ultimately, employers need to lead change. Invest in services for your team and show them they’re supported. Given the added stresses and unknown challenges we’re all fighting right now, it’s crucial to make sure your team knows their worth.