Mental Health in the Workplace

26 November 2020

By Ruth Lyndon

Mental Health in the Workplace

Mental Health in the Workplace - Podcast November 2020

Pre-Covid19, working from home was the holy grail for many but enjoyed by few. Once Covid hit in March 2020, the working landscape changed for the vast majority overnight. Companies and their employees had to promptly switch to a working-from-home model en-masse, with many ill-prepared. Office chairs and laptops were suddenly at a premium.

For many, this was a dream come true: reduced commute times, more time with family over breakfast, someone at home to accept that recent on-line purchase delivery, and of course, a much more efficient laundry system! However, this was not the case for everyone.

A lack of appropriate working facilities (those stories of people working on ironing boards are real), a feeling of isolation and deteriorating mental health is the reality for many currently working from home.

Employees Mental Health and Working From Home

In the latest Phoenix TalentTalks Podcast Series in partnership with the Business Post, industry employment and HR experts, Ciara McLoughlin, Partner and Head of Employment, DLA Piper Ireland and Caroline McEnery, Managing Director, The HR Suite joined Business Post journalist Elaine O’Regan and myself to examine mental health in the workplace in the current climate.

In advance of the Podcast, Phoenix carried out a confidential survey amongst 200+ mid to C-suite level professionals across our specialist sectors to gain a first-hand insight into the impact working from home under Covid19 is having on employees. Some interesting results:

  • It is clear that the majority expect their organisations to continue to offer some form of working from home arrangement post-Covid (77% of respondents) with 48% favouring 3 days per week from home and 37%, 2 days.

  • However, 67% of respondents felt that their mental health was being negatively impacted (whether marginally or significantly) as a result of working from home during Covid19 restrictions.

  • More concerning is the stigma that still appears to exist for many when it comes to discussing mental health issues with their employer. 67% of respondents said they would not feel comfortable doing so. Further 56 % felt that to do so would have a negative impact on their career prospects within that organisation with 18% unsure.

So whilst we have undoubtedly come a long way in terms of a willingness to discuss this topic openly, from our survey and from regular conversations with our wider candidate community, it appears that a stigma still exists as regards mental health in an employment context.

What Can Organisations Do?

Caroline McEnery said that the HR Suite adopts a proactive, pre-emptive approach with their clients and having a robust company mental health policy in place is key for organisations.

However, having a mental health policy in an employee manual which is then relegated to a desk drawer is not enough. Caroline advises that organisations need to make it “a part of the culture” and “bring it to life”.

How? By training and up-skilling their managers to identify those struggling with their mental health and how to address it. Employers should encourage managers to have regular check-ins with employees in addition to work issues, and ask them how they are doing. This will help normalise the issues many employees are experiencing during working from home in a Covid context. In fact, Caroline has written a whole book on this topic entitled “The Art of Asking the Right Questions”.

As Caroline highlights, if employees don’t feel supported by their managers, they will quickly forget the positive elements of the role but will remember the organisation (which is represented by its managers) which didn’t support them when they needed it most.

The Legal Perspective

Ciara McLoughlin, Partner and Head of Employment at DLA Piper Ireland, speaks about the legal risks employers can face when they get their organisation’s mental health approach wrong , and in a jurisdiction that affords a very broad legislative definition to disability. This can range from a psychiatric injury claim at the most extreme end of the spectrum to a disability discrimination claim or a failure to make a reasonable accommodation claim.

So what should organisations do? DLA Piper recently published a report entitled “Mental Health in the Workplace” which examines this issue and includes tools to assist employers. This includes tips on how to train managers to detect what is often an “invisible illness”.

Ciara advises that an Employee Assistance Programme is a key legal tool which will help an employer defend a claim against a psychiatric injury and shows the employer has taken the time to consider this issue and put relevant supports in place. Ensuring that leaders and managers are trained to spot those employees who aren’t connected is also a key leadership strategy.

Ciara also discusses the real balancing act employers can face with employees who they know have had mental issues in the past but are now recovered to avoid stigma or discrimination.

It Makes Business Sense

Ciara points out that it is “just good business” for organisations to put time and resources into their mental health policies. It reduces costs and employee absenteeism, improves employer brand and employee engagement.

Talent Attraction & Retention

From a talent attraction and retention point of view, I firmly believe that this is a unique opportunity for organisations to be brave. Address this issue which many employers shy away from and make it one of your organisation’s unique selling points.

Become known as a progressive organisation that values and supports its employees when their mental health is both good and bad. Adopt an open, non-stigmatised culture and ensure that this message comes from the top down. Some key tools include:

  • Normalise it: Speak about mental health with your employees openly and honestly. Whether it is the CEO/Managing Partner in a town hall setting and/or team managers/leaders in regular meetings - communicate and discuss mental health. Like DLA Piper, many organisations ask senior figures to record a short video where they talk about their mental health struggles and how the organisation supported them.

  • Strategy: Put a mental health strategy/ well-being strategy in place to include an Employee Assistance Programme. Communicate with your employees and ensure they know what supports are available and how to access them on a confidential basis. Monitor and update your strategy as appropriate.

  • Training: Train your managers/team leaders to identify those employees who are experiencing mental health issues and demonstrate the supports which are available to that employee to get them through this particularly difficult time.

  • Value: Show that your organisation recognises that mental health issues are a part of normal life and there are supports available to help employees who are struggling. Crucially, ensure they know that their value and career prospects in the organisation are not adversely affected as a result of discussing mental health issues.

In time, Covid19 will be applauded for making major transformational changes to the employment landscape. This unique opportunity is forcing us to transform our approach to mental health in the workplace for the better.

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