Creating mentally healthy workplaces

For many risk industry experts like the people you hear on The International Risk Podcast, the coronavirus pandemic was an eventuality planned for and predicted, but the pandemic was completely unanticipated for most of the population. Despite these differences, one thing unites us all: the monumental changes to our daily lives and the risks posed to our mental health.  

As restrictions begin to ease, here in the UK, I find myself fearing normality, avoiding people, and wanting to remain in this new comfort zone. This development of social anxiety is undoubtedly a result of the Covid pandemic and associated risks, but it is manageable. It is manageable because I am privileged to be in a low-risk group. I have no history of mental health problems, I am white, financially stable, and I have been spending the pandemic in my large family home with access to a private garden. However, certain groups are disproportionally affected by the risks of the pandemic and, subsequently, the risks to their mental health. The pandemic has exacerbated mental health problems for the people who were already suffering, taking many to breaking point. The pandemic has disproportionately affected minority groups who could not stay safe at home because, typically, they are working in ‘key worker’ sectors. The pandemic has caused mass unemployment and has created widespread financial uncertainty and poverty. Finally, the pandemic has reduced the quality of life for city residents confined to small, overcrowded flats and houses with no access to outdoor spaces. The risks to all of us have risen, but the risks placed on certain groups have been significantly more significant than the risk for others. 

It is unknown to what extent the pandemic has negatively impacted mental health and how this will eventually be identifiable in statistics, but one thing is for sure, many of us feel the pressure on our mental health continually increasing as lockdowns are prolonged and in-person activities are suspended. If we take the SARS outbreak in 2003, we can deduce how damaging lockdowns and isolation can be. The SARS outbreak correlated with a 30 percent increase in suicides in over 65s, demonstrating the severity of risk posed to our mental health. Furthermore, studies show that job loss and financial struggles through economic downturns are associated with long-lasting declines in mental health. The pandemic has seen one of the worst economic downturns in recent years.  

The pandemic has highlighted the appearance of psycho-social risks which can push employees into a downward spiral.  Low morale, loss of motivation and disengagement, has contributed to psychological distress in employees, and the workplace, over the pandemic, has become a hotspot for manifesting invisible illnesses. Recent reports have found that this mounting stress, anxiety, and depressive behaviour, in the workplace directly correlates with an increased risk of suicidal behaviour among professional groups, risking long-term sick leave, large proportions of employee absences, and company finances. 

Organisations that do not address these risks will pay horrendous economic, human, and social costs that are preventable. By applying traditional leadership skills to invest in employee mental health and fostering good management, risks to employees can be reduced significantly.  

So, what risk mitigation strategies can leaders use to protect their employee’s mental health post-covid? The answer lies in creating mentally healthy workplaces. .  The International Risk Podcast has had a couple of expert guests who have spoken on the topic of mental health including Keith Lesley, and Ken Duckworth from the National Alliance for Mental Illness

The objective of team leaders, managers and employers should be to integrate social concerns, advocating for employee’s well-being by preventing and detecting mental health risks. Some of the most effective measures include training line managers to have regular positive conversations with staff regarding their mental well-being. The cost of the discussion has been shown to have a five times payoff as it creates trust, empathy, and understanding. In addition to bringing balance and well-being to the workplace, these regular conversations place the individual at the heart of a manager’s priorities. By prioritising employees, the manager invests in employee health, boosting their motivation, commitment, and creating conditions favourable to economic recovery in activity. This interactivity allows employers to break the isolation of people by promoting their mental health- creating an ethical environment and a more economical one. Whatever drives this change, ethics or economics, the goal remains the same: refocus the priorities of individuals to generate commitment and motivation. 

The pandemic has increased the risks across every aspect of our daily lives, and at a time where team unity is at risk, it should be a priority of leaders to support employees on the journey of good mental health practice. This will create ethical, economical and sustainable mentally healthy workplaces. 

The author of this article, Harriet Tyler, is part of the production team at The International Risk Podcast, and a final year Politics, Philosophy and Economics student at the University of Stirling.

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