There is no doubt that we’re going through one of the toughest periods in living memory, for individuals, for organisations and for the sectors and industries they work in.

Many of us have been forced to isolate from our loved ones and have endured seeing family, friends and colleagues become very sick, and distressingly even pass away. Our routines have been disrupted and many businesses have suffered or been forced to close. The Merriam-Webster Word of the Year for 2020 was ‘pandemic’.

Is it any wonder that for many our health has deteriorated and that we have suffered from burnout, trauma, uncertainty and isolation – all leading to mental and physical exhaustion?

Advice from The Mental Health Foundation resembles a checklist of challenges we have faced over the past 18 months. Keep active? Gyms and sports clubs have been mostly closed. Eat well and drink sensibly? Many have been comfort-eating and hazardous alcohol use rose last year from 21% in April to 41% in September. Take a break? Quite the opposite: data from NordVPN Teams shows that UK homeworkers are working an additional 2.5 hours each day, and most lack even a summer beach holiday to look forward to.

And as for asking for help and talking about your feelings? This is hard at the best of times. While we may have occasionally gathered up the courage to lean across our desks to talk to a colleague, or whisper about something sensitive in the office kitchen, bringing up how we feel in an impromptu email, instant message or video call can feel uncomfortable – you perhaps assume that the receiver will be too busy, or might not even care, and without being able to glance over at them you can’t gauge whether now is a good time. How many feel unable to reach out and instead stay silent, suffering alone in their bedroom office as the worries pile up?

This raises the question of what organisations are doing to look after our mental and physical health. Many do have provisions in place. But there is a difference between making support available and ensuring that it gets used when it is needed.

Throughout 2021, the Capita Institute is undertaking a study of over 350 key decision makers to understand how, as individuals, as organisations and as industries, we’ve been affected by the pandemic and how we’re adapting in these tough times. In four quarterly ‘pulse’ surveys conducted in partnership with YouGov, we’re looking at whether there is a great opportunity to view work and life after the pandemic as a new frontier.
Of the survey respondents whose answers shaped our recently published Pulse 2 report, which was based on field research conducted in April/May of this year, 44% and 42% told us that their mental and physical health had, in fact, been reasonably good. Just 5% believe that their organisation has no provisions for mental/physical wellbeing in place. In addition, mental health issues were only raised by 15% of decision-makers during the past 12 months, with 15% flagging their physical health, and most believe that their organisation has responded well to both types of challenges.

And yet, one senior director told us that their management is “totally out of touch” and that they had raised a physical health need, but “it made the situation worse so I would never do again.” Another said that there was “no mental health awareness” in their company and “no one to talk to”. Was there genuinely no one, or is this respondent just not confident that anyone would listen?

Worryingly, almost a third (30%) told us that their mental wellbeing had actually worsened, with 27% stating the same for physical. Over a third (37%) said that they would go as far as to leave their organisation if their mental health needs were not being met.
Organisations’ most common health provisions are Employee Assistant Programmes (EAPs) (60%), regular communications (53%) and cycle to work schemes (52%). In addition, some also have occupational health support (48%), mental health first aiders (47%) and access to private healthcare (36%). So if they are so good at taking care of their employees, then why do estimates suggest that mental health problems cost UK employers in the region of £2.4 billion, with 70 million days lost each year?

Some respondents to our survey shared that the physical side of their health is often deemed to be a personal issue, placed under their responsibility and not their organisation’s. This despite well documented links between mental and physical wellbeing. And here we really get to the heart of the matter. Are organisations only concerned with ticking another box, putting health provisions in place and then leaving their employees on their own to navigate them?

One of the worst aspects of a mental health issue is that it can take away the individual’s agency. They can’t seek out the help they need or in some cases even recognise that they need help. This is why the current wisdom is to not just arbitrarily ask people how they are feeling as a way of greeting – engaging in a shallow exchange that usually induces a “fine thanks, how are you?” response irrespective of the truth – but to ask twice and in some circumstances force the honest response.

The danger is that we are expecting those whose current state of mind makes them feel disempowered and inert to take action. Yes, individuals are responsible for their own health, but without wanting to create a nanny culture, couldn’t those in charge do more to make sure that their colleagues really are feeling fine?

They could ask once. They could ask again. They could then decide to go a step further and ask someone from the organisation’s support function to reach out, taking the active step on the colleague’s behalf. It may not end up being necessary, it may not go any further – but for some, for those suffering in silence and lacking the courage to act, it might get them the help that they would never have sought out alone.

And then, organisations could do even more.

Yes, they could promote Mental Health Awareness Week. They could hold Tea & Talk sessions. They could train their managers to recognise the signs of stress and encourage a culture of openness.
But what happens to managers if they don’t carry out these well-meaning actions and then the member of their team becomes part of the increasingly concerning statistics outlined above? Nothing. Unless a specific complaint is made, the effect won’t be traced to the cause. Nothing will come back onto the manager if they didn’t take their responsibilities over their colleague’s health seriously.

There must be more accountability.

What if reviewing employee health and wellbeing became part of regular one-to-ones with managers and a standing item at team meetings?

Then organisations could decide to go further. They could require all employees to set health targets for the year and discuss them during appraisals. We have goals for outputs and services, so why not for how we feel? For managers, how well they have monitored and reacted to their team’s health would be a factor in reward and promotion discussions.

What about going even further? A system could be put in place for monitoring and measuring the organisation’s engagement with its people’s health. How well it does would be a matter of record in its annual accounts. If sustainability has targets and plans, then why not employee health? The financial press could report on it; workplace wellbeing awards could become made the standard, not the exception. Consequences for failure in this area would need to be as severe as for other types of mismanagement. Millennials care about an organisation’s culture and values as much as its turnover, so how well it looks after its employees is far from irrelevant.

And organisations could do yet more still. The most senior people could present themselves as case studies, speaking as readily about their own mental or physical struggles as they already do about strategies and restructures and turnover. Everyone has had tough times – what better way to create a culture where it is OK to admit that you are not feeling great right now than to have the CEO admit that they have been there too?

In purely pragmatic terms, all of this would still complement traditional ‘business’ concerns. Studies have proven that a happy workforce is a more effective one. Oxford University's Saïd Business School found that happy workers are 13% more productive. Professor Steve Peters’ Chimp Paradox mind management model, popularised by the likes of Sir Chris Hoy and Ronnie O’Sullivan, asserts that if you can’t manage your mind first then you can’t accomplish anything. Changing our priorities could be what gives us back some of the money and days that we keep losing. It would certainly give us back some people and stop us from losing them – in the most extreme cases, from losing them for good.

The great opportunity debate is all about using difficult circumstances as a springboard to improve. If we can come away from this devastating period with a better understanding and appreciation of health in the workplace, then at least something positive will have come from all the hardship.

You can register using the button below to receive your copy of the full Pulse 2 great opportunity debate report and automatically receive our third pulse report, which will be published in the Autumn.

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