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Coping with the return to work: How to tackle burnout

The region’s leading mental health consortium Living Well UK warned of the mental health crisis for corporates long-before COVID, explaining that burn-out, presenteeism, and stress were leading to a loss of productivity – and earnings – for companies. However, with the pandemic adding further strain on an already struggling workforce, businesses who aren’t equipped to support their employees with their mental health are going to reach a pinch-point… and fast.


Work-related mental health issues can range from the mild to the extreme, but left unchecked and unsupported, the impact can truly be life-limiting. Karla Hall, Senior Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner at Living Well UK, comments:


“Some of the most common mental health problems that we find present at work are a combination of stress, anxiety and low mood. This could be down to increased demand on services, resulting in higher caseloads for staff, working towards targets in roles such as sales, or feeling a general sense of discomfort in one’s role and worrying about what the future may look like.


“This has only been exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic. With regards to mental health services specifically, we have already seen a huge rise in the demand for support regarding people’s wellbeing as the pandemic has thrust people into a variety of uncomfortable positions: whether it be in their personal lives or financially. Now facing the prospect of returning to work and picking up the pace again, this is leading people to feel increasingly stressed, and so it’s important that employers are mindful of this. Each has a duty of care to ensure that they have the correct avenues of support for employees, but are able to make reasonable adjustments for staff where possible.”


Advising on just what those adjustments look like, Ben Howells, CEO at Living Well UK, suggests that businesses focus on three main areas: communication; support; and consideration. He comments:


“There’s lots of practical steps that businesses – both small and large – can take to put staff mental health and wellbeing firmly front of mind. One that can have a huge impact is encouraging line managers to have regular weekly or fortnightly one-to-ones with their direct reports, and ensuring wellbeing is made a touch-point topic: much like professional development and productivity already are.


“Then, ensuring there is a clear and actionable pathway to access support from this when staff need it is vital. If its financially feasible, offering Employee Assistance Programme counselling can have massively positive results; if it’s not financially possible, consider training key members of staff as Mental Health First Aiders so there is a designated person to speak to when employees need it.


“One of the key things that flagged time and again by clients in our mental health support services, is that compassion and consideration is so often missing from effective leadership – causing huge unnecessary strain on staff wellbeing. The pandemic has affected people’s mental health – whether individuals are showing it at work or not – and so managers have to show patience and understanding when it comes to deadlines and realistic workloads.”


Adding to this, Ben feels there are simple company-wide policies to implement that all have positive impacts on mental health. He suggests:


“Promote time away from screens by having more phone-calls than emails, or as restrictions ease, encouraging meetings face-to-face if people feel comfortable. Hold walking meetings in parks or have coffee meetings outdoors: being outside rather than stuck in the same four walls – whether that’s an office block or a home-office – can boost wellbeing exponentially.


“Equally, being sensitive to what people need to make work fit into their lives can increase people’s sense of self-worth and appreciation, all positive for mental health. Take a flexible approach in the ‘new normal’ by offering hybrid working to staff – not just as a pandemic easing action, but as a formal working structure available to all staff, giving them the autonomy to make choices based on their individual circumstances and working patterns. Another way to boost employee engagement and boost mental health is to encourage feedback, through the likes of anonymous surveys. By taking a consistent approach to feedback opportunities, staff feel their thoughts are being heard and recognised, making them feel valued.”


Finally, Ben stresses the importance of leading by example. He says:


For workplace mental health policies to be truly effective, top level management have to exercise and champion all of the above. Ensure managers don’t send emails out of hours, which gives the impression that it is expected or rewarded; instruct managers to take time-off and make sure they encourage their staff to do the same. This has to be enacted at all levels if wellbeing is going to be weaved into the fabric of a business: otherwise, it creates more worry, as staff fear that the policies are just a box ticking exercise.


From a policy angle, Ben says there are three must-haves to tackle the mental health crisis:


“Firstly, a Mental Health and Wellbeing Policy, explaining exactly how the business will be practically implementing the processes around wellbeing, to ensure that it is part of the culture and core of the company. This covers everything from recruitment and equal opportunities, to monitoring and encouraging employee feedback.


“Next is a Training and Development Policy, which explains clearly how the organisation is committed to the development and career journeys of each member of staff. This should also outline how staff can request additional training.


“Thirdly, a Health and Safety Policy – if a robust health and safety policy is in place and actually implemented, this reassures staff, making them feel safe, comfortable, and valued whilst they are at work.”


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