Mental Health Awareness Week (10-16 May) this year is timed perfectly to get us all thinking about the impact of the past year on mental health in the workplace – and the steps we can take to protect and improve employee wellbeing as lockdown restrictions continue to ease.
Pre-Covid, the professional services sector was already focusing on ways to support better mental health. Not surprising perhaps, given that recent research from Deloitte found that poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45 billion each year (a rise of 16% since 2016). Combined with the fact that professional services firms are already well known to be pressured workplaces (‘Lawyers are second most stressed professionals’, The Law Society Gazette, 2019), and firms have understandably spent recent years launching numerous initiatives targeted at improving discussion and management of mental health issues.
Activities among firms have included: mental health training and introducing Mental Health First Aiders across all seniority levels; sharing stories from leaders/employees as part of mental health networks; implementing buddying schemes to pair up people who have had similar experiences – for example, returning to work after a period of ill-health; formalising firm-wide flexible working policies; hosting webinars/events on wellbeing topics such as managing stress or mindfulness; and making referrals for counselling support.
From allotting space for calm/quiet rooms to giving out mental wellbeing apps, firms have been increasingly dedicating time and thought to the critical issue of mental wellbeing.
The impact of Covid
But then Covid hit. All of a sudden, everyone was working from home, disconnected from their usual routines and contact with family, friends and colleagues. According to a ‘Divided Together’ survey of 1,500 people, conducted by Westfield Health, 49% of UK professional services employees experienced a drop in the quality of their mental wellbeing during the first lockdown in 2020, with 44% saying they ‘were making an effort to seem upbeat when they didn’t feel like it’. Professional services respondents attributed this mental health deterioration to missing their usual routine (46%), finding it hard to concentrate (44%), being worried about the health of others (43%) or spending more time alone (36%).
Since then, we have had a winter of further lockdowns and now uncertainty about exactly how workplaces will operate in future. If there is one discussion that has dominated every virtual networking meeting Totum has hosted since March 2020, it is exactly when and how people will return to their offices. In our recent survey, over 70% of firms are considering implementing some form of hybrid working policy going forwards (some days spent in the office each week, others working from home), but few are yet agreed on their long-term policy.
Done well, hybrid working could offer huge benefits to employees, providing everyone with long-term flexibility, while also giving people the opportunity for all-important face-to-face contact. But right now, the uncertainty of how things will look makes it difficult for people to plan their futures, which can be a recipe for increased anxiety – especially following the considerable changes already wrought by the past year.
There are also other wellbeing considerations brought about by Covid and working from home. The ‘always-on’ culture was already prevalent pre-Covid, but taking the workplace home has only intensified that pressure to be constantly available, with people finding it more difficult to separate home and work life, especially where many people have not had the benefit of a home office and have found themselves working from, say, the kitchen table.
In addition, while firms have prioritised mental health during the lockdowns – making a point of regularly and individually checking in with everyone – the duration of the past year’s restrictions may well have resulted in some people slipping through the net. It is even harder to spot if someone is struggling when they are not in the same physical space for so long.
As offices open up again, it will be critical for firms to be alert to the fact that mental health might have declined and to give people the time and attention they might need to settle into a new routine.
Opportunity for change
But there is perhaps also an opportunity now to address deep issues concerning mental health in the professional services sector. Prior to Covid, firms were undertaking many separate activities to help acknowledge and manage mental health issues. But some of these may not have dug down deep enough to consider the underlying problem: a culture of long hours, poor work-life balance, and constant pressure to achieve perfectionism and excel.
Not that it is time to drop standards. But if hybrid policies are thought out well and implemented effectively, and if firms combine this with the further development of initiatives already started to safeguard mental health, then this could be the launchpad for a much healthier approach to mental wellbeing across the sector. Never have firms had an opening like now to cut up the workplace rulebook; this is a unique chance to reconsider a firm’s culture and establish work patterns that will operate better for everyone going forwards.
Change is never easy. Here at Totum, we have spent a lot of time thinking about our own permanent flexible working policy and how it can support all our employees into the future. But our team is relatively small – we know these challenges only grow with the size of the business. We are impressed, however, by our many conversations with professional services firms who clearly take mental health considerations very seriously and want to make a long-term difference on this critical issue.
As the summer beckons and our offices open up once more, this feels like a real moment in history to improve our approach to mental health at work – and by so doing, enjoy the benefits of more productive, fulfilled and successful teams.
If you would be interested in discussing hybrid working in more detail, you may be interested in attending our forthcoming webinar: ‘To hybrid or not to hybrid? Returning to the office’, on 27th May at 12-1pm. Click here for more details and to reserve your place.
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