As we find ourselves locked down again across Victoria, it felt especially timely to talk about some of the lessons learnt during earlier lockdowns about how your workplace can promote employee mental health.
If Victoria’s latest stage 4 lockdown demonstrates anything, it’s that the new working from home reality that so many of us were first inducted into in earnest nearly a year ago, isn’t a thing of the past. For now, working from home is simply the safest option again; but that doesn’t mean it’s psychologically easy.
As well all know, working from home presents its challenges (now there’s a euphemism), particularly with respect to risks to employees’ mental health.
There are, of course, vital reasons why employers must care about the mental health of employees. The first of these, of course, is that being a human being ought to dictate that we care how those we spend time with are faring psychologically. It’s every bit as important as how they’re doing physically.
It can, though, feel harder to ask how someone is when you can’t literally ‘read the room’ and when the cues are missing or you’re only get part of the usual picture via zoom or the phone.
Apart from the “because you’re a human being” answer to “why should I be concerned about my employee’s mental health?” there are legal ones, too.
As an employer, you have a positive obligation to provide a workplace that is free from risks to health and safety, including risks to mental health and safety, including under your state’s health and safety legislation (if you’re in Victoria, that’s the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (Vic)).
Essentially, you’re obliged to identify psychosocial hazards, including depression and anxiety which can arise under the isolation and stress of lockdown. If your employees have home schooling responsibilities, or you’re aware of concerns about pre-existing conditions or factors like domestic abuse which might exacerbate those risks, then you need to tread carefully and not ignore your obligations. This is because you are also legally obliged to take reasonably practicable steps to eliminate or minimise the risks that arise from identifiable hazards.
So, what on earth do you do?
Well, here are some ideas as to some reasonably practicable first steps that might be appropriate for your workplace.
(1) Make general offers of support and follow through
We recommend that you take advice on this, so what you say is bespoke to your workplace, appropriate to your situation, and doesn’t leave anyone feeling exposed.
Essentially, you need to let your team know that you’re not a therapist but that you understand that lockdown can and does put health issues of all kinds under a microscope. Ask them to please feel free to come to you or an appropriate person if things are feeling overwhelming.
(2) Embed considerations about mental health into your organisation’s health and safety risk assessments
We know that running risk assessments aren’t everyone’s idea of a great Friday night (what, it’s just us?!) but risk assessments and matrixes are the friend of any workplace.
Done right – and that means comprehensively – they put possible psychological risks front and centre, along with physical ones. Regular assessments can help focus you on invaluable insights into where and how safety issues can arise, and work out how to put measures into place to prevent, or at least mitigate, those risks.
A collaborative approach to identifying psychosocial hazards within your team:
- indicates you are seriously committed to safety of all kinds; and
- allows you to develop appropriate mitigation strategies to prevent and respond to risks to mental health.
This applies whether you’re all working remotely, or not.
Embedding mental health risks into regular risk assessments also establishes a written chain you can rely on to establish that you’ve been thinking about and taking appropriate action to fulfill your positive obligations.
(3) Provide employees with supportive tools to help to manage stress
If your workplace can offer an employee assistance program, that’s a great start. You can also consider providing access to:
- online therapy services like BetterHelp and TalkSpace; and/or
- meditation or mindfulness training through apps like Headspace, Whil, or Calm.
These are accessible ways to provide support, even remotely, and even if your business isn’t huge.
(4) Understand that mental health issues impact different people in different ways
In managing these issues with an employee you need to respect them, and that their background and experiences will differ from yours.
If an employee comes to you:
- don’t make promises you can’t keep;
- seek appropriate advice;
- educate yourself (that’s not your employee’s job);
- follow the advice you’ve been given;
- follow up with your employee and discretely check regularly to see how they are; and
- ensure you take action appropriate to support your employee and address the risks.
A diverse workplace is a wonderful thing. Inevitably someone else’s experiences will differ from yours. It’s not their job to educate you about their background and how their health issues impact: it’s your job to make the workplace safe for them.
(5) Encourage a culture of regular, open communication
One major challenge when addressing mental health issues is overcoming the stigma that surrounds them.
By building mental health and well-being into the leadership culture of your organisation, you can support regular communication throughout the organisation and help to reassure employees speaking up that this won’t see them outed, stigmatised or sidelined.
The research shows that where employees feel you have a genuine concern for them – you’re not just trying to avoid transgressing discrimination laws (though obviously compliance with those laws is vital) – this will be paid back in droves. Employees who feel safe and well are also more productive.
(6) Encourage and model a separation between work and home
There’s no doubt that working from home reduces your commute! But it can become really difficult to stop work bleeding into every part of life and vice versa, especially when it’s all happening in the one place. ‘Always on’ behaviour can run rife .
Ask your employees to try to have a defined ‘work space’, even if it is a particular area of the living room or the kitchen table. The already high risk of employees working from home feeling like their brain is fried may reduce a little if there’s a clear delineation between when and where they work, and when and where they don’t, even if the commute is as short as from the kitchen to the desk.
(7) Consider mental health first aid training
Identifying mental health risks in those you’re working with takes some education. Improving awareness and understanding through accredited courses can help – it also shows your employees that you take mental health seriously, which can increase empathy and understanding in your workplace.
(8) Carve out time for employees to shoot the breeze!
At Lacey & Co, we realised that remote working meant we had to make a deliberate effort to ensure we maintained the interpersonal connections that are so vital to loving our work.
Those incidental opportunities to chit chat around the office’s kitchen bench while making our famed L&C toasties at lunchtime were goooone (sob!).
Make sure your colleagues know they can and should take the time to maintain those vital connections. Proper connection can become a casualty during lock down: you’re often trying to keep it tight to avoid zoom fatigue, and there can be other intense demands on your time. Being productive and focused is great, but you really only achieve that where you’re doing ok. That means getting a good long look at every possible pet cameo and hearing where your colleague’s heads, hearts and chocolate supplies are at.
If you would like some support to ensure you’re fulfilling your health and safety obligations, please do get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.