It's been a tough year, but that doesn't mean that we can't use this opportunity to make things better. COVID-19 and its consequences offer employers a unique opportunity for a system reset, and to rebuild our working practices, putting care for mental wellbeing at the core of what businesses do.
Poor mental health has a significant impact on society and a huge human and economic cost. Even before the pandemic, it was an issue that couldn't be ignored. In November 2018, Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health, said that employers had an obligation to help employees "remain healthy, empowered and valued". His suggestions included providing free fruit, and while such initiatives may have a benefit, there was a tendency pre COVID-19 for some employers to see wellbeing as an add-on or afterthought, rather than hardwiring it into the business.
In 2017, Theresa May announced a government commitment to break down the stigma surrounding mental health and to make that, and prevention of mental ill health, priorities for employers. The Thriving at Work report followed in October 2017 and the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), the UK's foremost health & safety regulator, produced new management standards for stress at work.
It is clear from those standards that the HSE wanted care for mental wellbeing to be integral to the operation of a business, to shape and guide how things are done, not something simply to be added on at the end. Easier said than done though; this would have required some businesses to go back to the first principles of their operation. For that reason, it felt that the standards set out by the HSE might never be achievable.
However, since we were given "stay at home" guidance in March last year, our working life has changed in ways few of us could have imagined possible, in such a short timeframe. Things that seemed too difficult and too disruptive to undo in the name of better mental wellbeing, have been torn down by the demands of the pandemic.
The unprecedented crisis has given us a blank canvas from which to rebuild the way we live and work. But how do employers grasp this opportunity to make things better and avoid the pitfalls of the past?
As is the case with so much in the workplace, communication is key. We need to listen to each other; employers should know the pressures faced by employees and what they value from their employment. Employees should share their concerns and worries, and engage with what is offered by employers.
Pre-COVID-19, staff surveys consistently identified lack of control over tasks, lack of respect, failure to consult staff and lack of support from line managers as the main stressors in the workplace. Understanding your workforce and how work impacts on your individual employees is an important first step. Thereafter, consider how your business can function while respecting the needs of your employees. It may require a fundamental change in approach, not a one-off exercise. Keeping the channels of communication open and monitoring what does and doesn't work will be a major part of good business practice going forward.
The pandemic has provided an opportunity to break from practices and beliefs that seemed immovable 12 months ago. If we stop now and listen to each other, we could be taking the first steps on a much more positive journey.
This article first appeared in The Scotsman.