Contributing writer

7 ways to support employee mental well-being post-COVID

Jun 14, 2022
Human ResourcesIT Leadership

After a tumultuous few years, many employees are suffering in ways that IT leaders have never encountered. Here’s what industry veterans and specialists say about helping teams deal with ongoing mental health concerns and how to provide extra support when it’s needed.

We may have made it through the global pandemic, but that doesn’t mean it’s business as usual for everyone. Many have lost loved ones or at the very least carry the mental scars of months of anxiety and isolation.

It has become clear as COVID has worn on that we are never going to return to the old normal – not surprising as pandemics have historically led to societal shifts. In the case of COVID-19, this looks set to be the end of the universal office-based nine-to-five workday, as many are choosing to continue working from home at least part-time or requesting flexible working hours, something that a number of employers have equally embraced.

Priorities have changed in the workplace, but lingering challenges remain, such as the UK’s cost-of-living crisis, leaving many worried about how they’ll be able to pay their bills month to month.

It’s no wonder that mental health was the leading cause of sick leave in the UK in 2021.

Although little good came out of the pandemic, one ray of light was the way in which it opened the door to more conversations about mental health. Looking after the mental well-being of staff became a management priority throughout the pandemic and appears set to continue.

As workforces navigate and experiment with various options and solutions, what can you do to support employee mental health going forward?

1. Ask how you can help

All good journeys have a starting point, and the road to employee well-being is no different. It can be hard to get a sense of direction when you don’t know from where you’re starting, so a good way to begin is with a staff survey.

“CIOs can work alongside the wider C-suite to introduce things like employee surveys to find out what support the workforce would like to see introduced,” says Charles Butterworth, managing director of software company Access People. “This is also a great way of demonstrating that the business leadership cares about what staff want and is listening.”

“In addition to this, regular one-to-one check-ins with managers, monthly pulse checks via surveys, and ‘all hands’ style meetings can ensure staff are up to date with business information and have the chance to input into the business goals and strategy.”

2. Automate to relieve the pressure

CIOs should, of course, turn to technology wherever possible to help ease work stress for their employees. Many IT teams feel pressured and overworked and automation can help staff avoid burnout by removing many manual processes and decreased workloads.

Look for areas where an automatic process can simplify repetitive or routine tasks. Are there tools that can assist with data entry or routine expense reporting? Can a different workflow process take some of the tedium out of creating sales logs or filling in forms?

Conduct a quick review of procedures, focusing only on tasks that could be shortened or simply eliminated without any impact on the team’s work. Legacy programs or features are good targets – all too often some systems are maintained simply because it has been past practice to do so.

Consider making investments in automation software or tools to replace tasks where possible, though ensure that you inform employees you are not seeking to replace them in the process (thus adding to already high stress levels).

Finally, ask your team what they’re doing that doesn’t need to be done. This is often more effective and efficient than a top-down inquiry into redundancy since you will be talking to those performing the work.

3. Listen actively

Companies can deploy all the efficiency initiatives in the world, but if leadership aren’t conducting regular one-to-one conversations in which they are employing active listening, employees won’t feel supported, says Rebecca Bezzia, managing director of digital innovation agency R/GA London.

“We’ve done a lot around making sure we genuinely listen to our employees and regularly run engagement surveys to ensure we’re connected and listening to our people,” she says.

“We’ve doubled down on initiatives that are people and mental health-focused, such as hypnotherapy and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) based counselling.”

Active listening simply means being prepared to actually hear what a person is saying, paying attention to non-verbal clues such as posture and ensuring conversations are held in a relaxed and informal setting. You don’t need to be an expert; you simply need to be focused and have an open mind to listen actively.

“We’ve also introduced days of rest into our working year where everyone can disconnect and focus on themselves, have a rule of ‘no-meeting Wednesdays’, and a work-from-anywhere philosophy” in what she says is a long-term commitment to employees.

4. Be human

Now’s the time to show your most empathetic side to your employees. The carrot-and-stick approach is not the right tack to take right now; focus instead on compassion and understanding.

“The most important thing is a human approach,” says Helena Nimmo, CIO at software firm Endava.

“Creating a supportive work environment in which people feel they can open up about any mental health issues they’re dealing with, without fear of judgement, is crucial.”

5. Lead by example

It’s also imperative that management lead by example, because “people need a North Star more than ever before,” Bezzia says.

Many IT teams are hooked on the notion of heroism, especially since during the pandemic rapid digital transformation, accelerated by the move to remote working, led to increased workloads and stress, and an unhealthy work-life balance.

This is an unsustainable way to operate, which is why it’s important for CIOs to set clear expectations and lead by example, so the pressure to perform heroics, stay late and become overworked is relieved.

“As leaders, we need to be comfortable in saying, ‘It’s not possible for me to do these things with the resources and constraints we currently have,’” says Josh Yavor, CISO at enterprise security solutions provider Tessian. “What’s more, if team members see their leader sending emails late at night or regularly pulling all-nighters, it reinforces that behaviour as the norm.

“While heroics are sometimes unavoidable, CIOs and CISOs should ensure that doesn’t become the culture, so they can set their teams up for more sustainable working practices.”

6. Create the right workplace culture

A big part of supporting your employees’ mental wellbeing rests on creating a culture in which they feel comfortable coming forward to talk about difficulties they might be facing. But it’s also important to remember that when someone is struggling with their mental health, they may try to hide it at work.

“They may not want to seem like a burden, which is why it’s important for CIOs to harness emotional intelligence so that they’re better able to identify when something is up,” says Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of the Chelsea Psychology Clinic.

This approach can be replicated throughout the business via the implementation of mental health first aiders – employees who volunteer to receive training to gain a better understanding of mental health issues and how to help people.

“We have physical first aiders in the workplace and fire wardens. Having a mental health first aider can be just as crucial,” says Kayleigh Frost, head of clinical support at employee support provider Health Assured. “More workplaces are now training designated staff members in mental health first aid. Accredited courses teach people to identify, understand and help support a person at work who may need it.”

7. Personalise support for everyone

It’s important to remember that mental health solutions aren’t one-size-fits-all. To really help employees you must tailor solutions for them while recognising you’re not a trained therapist.

“Our goal above everything is for employees to be able to show up as their whole self and the best version of themselves more often than not,” Bezzia says.

“As a leader, you need to ensure your business really understands that everyone is different. Help them to create experiences so they feel they are living again. For example, we introduced a learning allowance where people could learn new skills such as learning to create NTFs, how to ski, and even learning to fly.”