Mental health has never been higher on the corporate agenda, with the pandemic shining a light on the importance and business imperative of supporting staff with their own wellbeing. Businesses are taking action, with KPMG last week announcing that staff will get one afternoon off each week in order to help support their personal wellbeing.
As we mark Mental Health Awareness Week, it’s worth noting the wide range of mental health challenges that employees have faced this last year, as COVID has significantly disrupted the rhythms and routines that sustain us.
Stress, social isolation and burnout are three of the major challenges that many traditionally office-based workers have faced whilst working remotely, not to mention the myriad of personal problems they may have experienced.
What’s clear is the pandemic has disrupted our access to normal problem-solving resources, which would ordinarily help when dealing with adversity, such as personal networks of friends and family, faith communities and social groups, as well as professional support from colleagues.
The individual responses to stress are varied, but having an awareness of the way in which it manifests and a toolkit of strategies to manage it goes a long way in helping people to cope. Understanding ‘red flags’ such as persistently poor sleep, disordered eating, irritability and social withdrawal can help workers to seek support more readily and look out for others facing difficulties.
Key principles of recovery include a focus on “controlling the controllables” such as maintaining good sleep hygiene, sensible consumption of alcohol, regular nutrition and exercise.
Burnout results from operating in a high pressure, non-supportive environment over a prolonged period of time – more likely to occur in current working conditions – and is accompanied by a rapid decline in psychological health, such as extreme fatigue, feelings of hopelessness and a profound disinterest in the very work or career from which a lot of meaning has previously been drawn.
When individual employees are facing adversity, both organisational culture and individual factors can increase the risk of burnout developing. Coping styles that maintain output without acknowledging the inherently high stress levels associated with the nature of the work may be part of an organisational DNA, including a tendency to minimise or rationalise stress, or indeed deny it even exists.
These attitudes and behaviours act as a barrier to employees who might otherwise seek support at an early stage. They can also discourage them from making changes necessary to prevent the situation deteriorating. Personality factors may also compound the problem, such as having unrealistically high expectations and taking on too much responsibility.
Earlier this year some of the biggest global firms within professional services were reportedly facing mass exodus from their profession due to junior staff members suffering from burnout after working longer hours in isolation. Kevin Ellis, chair of PwC UK, said he was worried about retention, particularly with 3,000 recruits having joined the company remotely last year but without the network of friends in the office. Evidently, this is a significant challenge facing the accountancy sector, and one that business leaders must address head on to avoid a very real recruitment crisis.
The truth is, the pandemic has blurred the lines between work and home, which in many cases has led staff to prioritise work at the expense of personal hobbies and interests, giving rise to a digital presenteeism.
Looking at social isolation, this is said to reduce life expectancy by up to 15 years, alarmingly having the same impact as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. It can cause feelings of distress and anxiety, can negatively impact on self-esteem and confidence in the workplace and puts people at risk of becoming depressed.
How do you overcome stress, burnout and self-isolation?
In order to overcome these challenges in the workplace, measures must be considered at personal, professional and environmental levels.
Practical tips and tricks can be established to overcome ‘Zoom fatigue’, such as promoting movement throughout the day for those working from home and minimising the amount of video calls.
However, the holy grail will be to implement professional change from the top down. While internal awareness campaigns and wellbeing webinars are a well-intentioned start, they simply don’t go far enough in driving behavioural change at all levels of the business and giving team members permission to seek support.
The aspiration to reduce stigma and the associated blame, guilt and shame that those experiencing mental health difficulties go through is well intentioned, but delivering it requires a clear framework model with authentic compassion and empathy at its heart.
Crucially, a cultural shift of this nature needs to be underpinned by strong leadership. Across the corporate sector, senior business leaders have been willing to make themselves vulnerable and talk about their personal mental health challenges, in turn granting their junior colleagues implicit permission to come forward about their own struggles and seek support. Never has there been a better time to do so and the power of this role modelling simply cannot be underestimated. However, it must be backed up by appropriate signposting to relevant mental health services in order to support each individual’s needs and in turn ensure a happy, healthy and productive workforce.
Dr Chi-Chi Obuaya is a Consultant Psychiatrist & Clinical Lead at The Soke, a mental health and wellness clinic in London.