While the world battled COVID on the frontlines, we all faced battles of our own on the inside. Labourers, employees, business owners; most of us, at some point in the past year, have faced some form of mental health challenge. Given that, how have organizations been coping with a constantly stressed out workforce? What are some best practices that companies can adopt in order to ensure employee welfare while they work from home?
In Part I of this two part series, we explored the various mental health issues caused to working professionals during the pandemic. In this piece, we examine the role of the organization in maintaining and enhancing the mental well-being of the employees, what companies have been doing, and what the way forward may be in the Next Normal.
Recognizing the problem
The first step in dealing with a problem is acknowledging its existence. Historically, organizations have been reticent to admit that their employees face mentals stresses. The employee-employer relationship had been limited to the work that the employee was hired to do. However, even pre-pandemic, that trend had started to shift, ever so slightly. Companies (the smaller ones, especially) had begun to recognize the need for a holistic and safe environment for employees to thrive.
But when the pandemic hit, it brought the conversation about the long term mental health effects to the forefront. According to a survey by Mind Share Partners, 42% respondents reported a decline in mental health from the start of the pandemic.
It is important for organizations and the managers within them to acknowledge when an employee is experiencing psychological struggles, and not just brush it off as laziness, tardiness or incompetence.
That comes with creating an environment where team members feel safe enough to share their well-being struggles - be it physical, mental, financial, or any other concerns under the wellness umbrella..
Extending access to mental health support
One of the important takeaways from the LMX model - a relationship-based approach to leadership that focuses on the two-way (dyadic) relationship between leaders and followers - is that the attitudes of workers/subordinates depend largely on how they are treated by their leaders. When focusing on mental health and well-being, the same holds true. As mentioned previously, the kind of environment superiors create will directly affect the ease with which employees will be able to open up.
That said, employers/managers are generally not professional experts when it comes to matters surrounding psychological difficulties, and at times, there is a need for professional intervention. In such situations, if an organization can provide that much-needed access to professional help, it goes a long way in making employees feel safe and cared for by their paymasters.
Starbucks, for example, extended 20 free sessions with a mental health therapist or coach to all employees across all chains in the US. They even went a step further and extended this access to family members of the employees.
It is not just therapy sessions. In the ever evolving app-age, several employers have empanelled with emerging meditation and mindfulness apps catering to enhancement of mental wellness, to equip employees with the tools to protect and improve their mental well-being.
Mental health leaves
In addition to allowing employees access to professional help, sometimes it’s important for them to take a break and escape the often-stressful work environment for a while.
Work might not always be the sole contributor to their stresses, but during these trying times, some organizations are taking steps to ensure that work does not become an add-on to existing stress.
Back in Oct 2020, Urban Company announced unlimited mental health leaves for its employees in India. Suhail Vadgaokar, Director HR at Urban Company, said “These are anxiety-prone and sensitive times. Mental Health is one aspect of human well-being about which people have very little understanding in not only identifying the symptoms but also in helping another person suffering from it. Mental health treatment and psychological consultations continue to be expensive. Therefore through such initiatives, Urban Company is not only trying to foster employee health and but also create an environment where people feel safe to talk about mental health issues”
Greater flexibility to prevent work-life conflict
Allowing for flexibility in location as well as time has become an important change over the past year. In the initial days of the lockdown last year, it emerged that working from home meant many employees were spending an extra 2-3 hours a day “at work” as compared to the hours they put in before the lockdown. It is important to afford employees the flexibility to work the hours they feel most comfortable working, as long as targets are being met.
Flexibility not only provides employees with the needed support to manage the ongoing work-life conflict, it further contributes to enhancing their mental well-being.
Through enabling sustainable and suitable ways of working, flexibility helps foster a healthy work-life balance and keeps them from feeling like they are compromising one for the other.
The four-day work week
One of the biggest changes that have been brought about by companies reevaluating the employee’s work-life balance has been the increasing adoption of the four-day work week. While the concept itself has been around for decades, it only came back into mainstream conversation around 2018 when Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand based company, tried the system for its employees.
Following their lead, Microsoft gave the concept a shot and reported happier workers and a 40% jump in productivity. Once the pandemic hit, as companies devised various ways to improve the employee experience, a lot of organizations started trialing the concept. Awin, a company based out of Germany tried out the contracted work week to much success. “With staff well-being at the forefront of our minds, we have been experimenting with a more modern approach to work focusing entirely on outcomes rather than a more traditional input measurement,” CEO Adam Ross explained.
As with most cases of employees who are facing mental health issues, the organization has a key role to play in identifying and helping address these issues. While it has been well documented that employees are the most valuable asset for any company, they aren’t assets, they are people. People make up the fabric of the organization, and protecting their overall well-being is not just the smart thing to do, it is the right thing to do.
Moving forward in the shadows of the prevalent circumstances, curtailing further decline of mental health will remain an area that demands significant focus and action from employers.
To ensure long-term sustainability and well-being of their workforce, leaders will need to re-evaluate existing practices and enable real change in the organizational fabric to foster mental well-being.