Compassion now vital as mental health crisis looms

Now, more than ever, companies must ensure they are looking after their employees’ wellbeing, following an uptick in those reporting a deterioration of their mental health since the COVID-19 pandemic began


COVID mental health

Is there any wonder, in this eerie and uncertain period, which began abruptly and has destabilised social and economic structures, the mental health of people is collapsing? With millions across the country struggling to cope at the dawn of the coronavirus epoch, and prospects appearing bleak, what can organisations do to support employees?

Worrying stats abound. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), published on July 17, indicate almost two thirds (65 per cent) of Britons “feel worried about the future”. Mind, a mental health charity, found in late June that almost a quarter of adults (22 per cent) with no previous experience of mental health say it is now poor, or very poor.

Worse, the numbers are increasingly dispiriting. In the week ending July 5, for instance, 27 per cent of us thought that the current situation was “making my mental health worse”, according to the ONS. The following Sunday, on July 12, it had risen to 30 per cent. In the same timeframe the percentage of people “feeling stressed or anxious” jumped from 58 to 68 per cent, alarmingly.

A lockdown lasting over a third of 2020 has tested the emotional limits of everyone, and broken many. Isolation from friends and family, coupled with a dark cloud of doubt stretching to the horizon, have taken their toll. At the end of June, the Mental Health Foundation revealed that one in ten people in the UK “reported having had suicidal thoughts or feelings”.

Workplace wellbeing was critical before coronavirus

“The stressors for people during lockdown have been extensive,” says Dr Samuel Batstone, a consultant clinical neuropsychologist. “As such, you would expect a general increase in mental health issues and greater severity of symptoms.”

Dr Batstone argues because our brain anatomy is “essentially the same” as it was thousands of years ago – when fight, flight or freeze responses were short term and typically concerned with physical threats – our minds are failing to deal with “more abstract threats, like a pandemic”. Mental health statistics in UK

He continues: “In the developed world we seldom face a physical threat. However, we have replaced this stressor with numerous other, more abstract threats such as deadlines, money, peer pressure, relationships, social media and 24-hour news channels. The problem is that our biological evolution – regarding brain structure and function – has not kept up with this social evolution.”

Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School, concurs that our brains have failed to keep pace with the helter-skelter of modern life.

“The issue of mental health was a big one in the workplace before the coronavirus outbreak,” he says, pointing to a Health and Safety Executive study that showed 57 per cent of working days lost between 2017 and 2018 were due to “stress, depression or anxiety”. More recently, in January, Deloitte calculated that poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45 billion each year.

Counting the cost of collapsing mental health

And then the exponential spread of coronavirus began. Businesses that previously realised the importance of employee wellbeing, and had established support systems, have been better placed to help employees with the coronavirus fallout. Others have improvised well, and technology has enabled frequent contact, despite mass home working.

“Good organisations have ensured that line managers have direct contact on a one-to-one basis with each of their direct reports, from shop floor to top floor,” Professor Cooper says.

Many companies have sought out digital solutions. For example, American startup Humu uses artificial intelligence to sift through employee surveys to discover behavioural aspects and improve their overall wellbeing, while Kooth Work and Rightsteps offer good – and inexpensive – options for businesses to assist the mental health of staff.

Dave Lewis, principal at employee health and wellbeing specialists Rightsteps, says: “We’ve seen a surge in businesses – particularly SMEs – turning to us during lockdown as they’ve sought urgent support for their employees. Getting access to scalable, affordable and effective wellbeing solutions sooner rather than later is key to preventing the escalation of issues and minimising the impact on the business.”

Renate Nyborg, general manager in Europe of meditation platform Headspace, agrees. “The pandemic has forced organisations to expand their staff support rapidly,” she says. “Since mid-March, we’ve seen a 400 per cent increase in requests from companies seeking support for their employees’ mental health.”

Organisations turn to digital solutions

While all employers have a duty of care to protect the health and safety of their employees, Lynne Connolly, global head of inclusion and diversity at investment company Standard Life Aberdeen, believes organisations should go above and beyond for their staff. “Irrespective of legal obligations, as an ethical employer we want to help colleagues deal with mental health issues and have a range of interventions and resources at hand to provide active support,” she says.

“These range from the traditional – such as having someone to talk to – through to an app that tests a user’s emotional wellbeing and takes them on a journey to help them take control of their emotions. That same app acts as a pathway to professional counselling.”

Indeed, Moneypenny data shows that it’s good to talk: the average length of a call increased by 22 per cent during lockdown. “We crave human contact,” suggests Joanna Swash, chief executive of the outsourced-communications company.

Chinwagging aside, she showed impressive innovation to keep team morale high at the start of the pandemic. “We quickly introduced new initiatives, such as online yoga, meditation and exercise classes, as well as virtual lunches – with food delivery vouchers sent to employees’ homes – and much more,” says Swash, hinting at an evolution of wellbeing perks.

Similarly, at global workforce communications platform SocialChorus, co-founder and chief strategy officer Nicole Alvino implemented “distancing days”. She explains: “We decided that one day a month would be a company holiday, for the rest of 2020.”

In the coming months – possibly years – with a global recession looming, Alvino believes “empathy needs to be the foundation” of an organisation’s support for employees. “And this doesn’t require a capital investment,” she says. “For companies who can allocate resources, access to counselling services, meditation programmes and physiotherapy are impactful investments in your people.”

This sentiment chimes with Nyborg of Headspace. “Getting the best out of a workforce is difficult if leaders don’t empathise with employees and strive to understand pressures they might be facing,” she adds. “Moving forward, employers need to manage with compassion, transparency, and flexibility.”