Mental health: Unexpected COVID-19 benefits

HRD investigated the current state of mental health in the workplace

Mental health: Unexpected COVID-19 benefits

Many employers forget that the most valuable source of insight for understanding current workplace sentiment relating to mental health is often right in front them – their employees.

That’s according to Julie Mitchell, chief general manager, workers compensation at Allianz, who told HRD that an overwhelming number (80%) of Australian employees surveyed are now calling on their employers to take action to address mental health in the workplace.

The Allianz Future Thriving Workplaces report shows that workers compensation claims costs relating to mental health – or primary psychological workers compensation claims – have increased by 80%, rising an average of 22% year-on-year, since 2017.

Positively, the data shows many workplaces and worksites are moving in the right direction to address mental health in the workplace, however they are doing it at different paces.

One in two managers say they now feel an increased responsibility for their employees’ mental health at work, and almost one half of them (47%) think there is a stronger need for mental health initiatives in their industry.

Further research from Superfriend also found that during the pandemic, workers are feeling more connected than ever before, particularly in organisations where everyone worked remotely for at least a month since March 2020, compared to those who worked on-site.

The research also found a surprising increase in the number of people who have become more productive throughout this period (up 4% from February to 29.4% in June).

Read more: How has COVID-19 impacted men’s mental health?

The most popular productivity boosters were identified as “reduced commute to work” (38.4%), “more comfortable clothing” (31.3%) and “flexible work hours” (29.4%).

The unexpected benefits of working from home was welcome news given that Research by the Black Dog Institute found that during the peak of the outbreak, the rates of psychological distress, anxiety, and depression symptoms rose among adults.

The study found that 78% of the participants reported that their mental health problems had worsened during the outbreak and its peak.

Following World Mental Health Day, employers have never been more focused on checking in on the current state of their employees.

Mitchell told HRD that to address mental health concerns, employers should consider employee feedback through regular anonymous employee mental wellbeing surveys, suggestion boxes, or workshops.

She said this can offer a treasure trove of insights into the overall wellbeing of team members and help foster a thriving workplace.

Citing the Allianz research, Mitchell said there have been some key industries where mental health is front of mind, such as the education, health, IT and banking/finance sectors.

“These are all shining examples of how looking after the health of employees can create thriving working environments,” she said.

However, the tourism, retail and hospitality industries are lagging behind in understanding the impact of mental health issues.

“The pandemic has been a challenging environment for many businesses in these sectors and this is clearly having an impact on mental health across these sectors.”

How Allianz are addressing mental health
To improve the mental health in the workplace, Allianz themselves offer a Mental Health First Aid Network where 2.5% of their workforce is trained as mental health first aiders.

“Their role is to be there to listen, understand how our people are feeling, help guide individuals through any feelings of distress and offer suggestions as to what help to seek if relevant,” said Mitchell.

“This is all conducted confidentially, as we understand sometimes it's just good to lend an ear. Employees also have access to free counselling through Employee Assistance Programs.”

During the pandemic, to proactively address wellbeing with their own employees, Allianz have been providing online mindfulness and yoga sessions for six months and have been offering support calls to all Victorian employees conducted by their Mental Health First Aid Officers network.

Read more: COVID-19: How to protect employee mental health

To support leaders, Allianz are also providing additional leadership training, while their teams collaborated to produce a mix of interactive virtual sessions – external speakers, as well as classes spanning cooking through to games/trivia/competitions.

In addition to being proactive, it’s also paramount to be reactive.

Mitchell said it’s essential for employers to look out for signs that employees may be struggling.

“Monitor individuals’ absenteeism, performance and attitude. And at an organisational level, review turnover rates, time off for injured employees and the number of psychological, as well as physical injury claims,” she said.

“These are just some of the metrics businesses can use to benchmark their employees’ wellbeing.”

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