Mental Health Awareness at Work – Part 2

6 May 2021

Ahead of Mental Health Awareness Week (10th-16th May), I spent some time talking to one of our fantastic Learning Partners Laura Rosenthal.  Laura is an Instructor Member of MHFA England and regularly delivers Steps programmes that address mental health, wellbeing and resilience. Part 1 of our conversation can be found here, and in this Part 2, we hear her thoughts on the key challenges for people managers as we begin planning for hybrid working environments…

So Laura, as we start to return to offices and return to working together physically as teams, what are your reflections on how people managers need to adapt?  Are there specific challenges that you’re spotting? 

There are.  They’re many and varied – some similar to the challenges we’ve seen since the start of the pandemic – and some unique to the current situation.  For example, having to manage team dynamics – and the concept of ‘furlough resentment’.  This is the division that can arise between those that were out of the business and feel ‘out of the loop’ (or considered that their furlough meant they were not needed/valued) and those that weren’t furloughed, who took on twice as much work for the same pay whilst their furloughed colleagues were perceived to be ‘kicking back’.

This causes tensions and animosity between team members that wouldn’t normally exist – and add to that the additional stresses and pressures in people’s working life – it’s easy to see how people are working closer to burn-out or breaking point.   Those returning from furlough – or returning from ill-health, caring responsibilities or bereavement – need careful management.  The mental pressure of returning to work when you’ve been ‘disconnected’ or in some way ‘de-prioritised’ – is significant – and this is something managers need to keep a careful eye on.

And there’s the question of returning to physical spaces again (or not) when we’ve been isolated for so long.  That physical connection is something we’ve been starved of – but it may not be an easy return for some people…

Yes, the hybrid world will be built on physically different, socially distanced workplaces and some workers will need regular Covid testing/health screening too – these are stresses we never knew before.  A simple handshake or a pat on the back is now restricted, so despite being back together socially – physical connection is still entirely absent.  It’s known that we’re wired for physical touch and connection from birth to death – there are physiological reactions to physical touch (and therefore also to the lack of it).

Known as ‘Touch Starvation’ or ‘Skin Hunger’ – it’s counter-instinctual for us to be without physical connection. When you hug someone you decrease blood pressure, decrease heart rate (noradrenaline) and decrease stress levels (cortisone). Physical touch also stimulates other positive hormonal reactions such as an increase in oxytocin and serotonin – both ‘feel good’, calming responses.    So the impact of this absence of physical connection will be keenly felt – and we don’t yet know the longer term impact of that on individuals.

So how do we move forward to meet the challenges of the new hybrid working world and where do you think our focus should be as individuals and organisations?

It’s an interesting time that throws up many questions.  There are decisions about whether to leave behind the office and to move towards virtual working spaces.  What will the impact of this be though and what are the implications of this longer term?  How do you keep teams together if they are not physically in the same space?  How do you build engagement within a hybrid team?  How do you ensure learning & development continues and how will that happen?  How can you build an organisational culture remotely?

We’ve seen a lot of our clients prioritising work around mental health and facilitating honest conversations about resilience and wellbeing.  It’s vital, as research continues to emerge that demonstrates the significant impact of the pandemic on our mental health – and though restrictions may be easing for some nations, including for us here in the UK, the mental health challenge will undoubtedly remain.   The challenge for organisations – whether they return to an office, remain working from home or opt for a hybrid arrangement – will be to keep mental health conversations at the heart of their people strategy.  As we return to ‘normal’, it will be too easy to fall back into habitual behaviours/responses – and we know that, pre-pandemic, mental health has often been overlooked within our workplaces.

I’ve seen some really simple, positive ideas that can create actionable change.  Many organisations I work with are now allocating one day a week to be meeting-free, so no one is allowed to schedule a meeting at all on that particular day – a great way to give individuals a break from screens as well as time to focus on their own desk work so as to avoid feeling overwhelmed.  Some have a weekly wellbeing day with a programme of events or speakers on key topics – and some are creating buddy programmes to encourage positive sharing and honest conversations.

Another really positive – and relatively simple – idea that was suggested on a recent documentary with Roman Kemp (the DJ) is the 2 OK rule.  It’s quite literal – as in you ask if someone is ok (and you’ll probably get a fairly standard response) but then, deliberately, ask them again.  This double question will give an individual a double opportunity to open up.  I like it as an easy approach to ‘dig deeper’ and find out how someone is really feeling.

There’s still a lot of uncertainty – and sectors and world regions continue to be affected in different ways.  So against that changing backdrop, we need to acknowledge what we can do as individuals – to keep an eye on our colleagues, and the friends and family around us.  It’s about developing the skills to listen, to empathise, to talk honestly and openly and to be more human with each other.

It may be Mental Health Awareness Week – but this is something we need to continue talking about in the weeks and months ahead as we find our way forward in this new hybrid world.

To find out more about our approach to Mental Health at Work, read our case study about the award winning work on Mental Health Awareness at Work with BAE Systems.

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