R U OK? Day: How to support employee mental health

This year's national day may be more important than ever

R U OK? Day: How to support employee mental health

This year, R U OK? Day feels more pertinent than ever thanks to the lockdowns in place in Australia and New Zealand. While the rest of the world opens up, many parts of the region remain locked down, and it's employees who are bearing the brunt. Some are struggling under the weight of homeschooling responsibilities, while others have spent months separated from loved ones both interstate and overseas.

Anecdotally, we know people are doing it tough, and the statistics paint an equally worrying picture. According to research by Qualtrics, almost one third of the 1,000 full time employees in Australia said their mental health has declined during the pandemic. Women are struggling in particular, with 40% reporting a decline in their mental health compared to 23% of men.

But even before the pandemic, the number of workers compensation claims related to mental health problems was rising, along with the time to treat and rehabilitate employees before they were able to return to work. Morag Fitzsimons, employee care leader at insurance firm Lockton, said the spike in mental health related claims over the last five years has had a significant impact on premium costs.

Speaking to HRD, Fitzsimons said the impact of COVID-19 on workers comp claims has not been truly felt yet and won’t be for many years to come, but there are ways HR leaders can help organisations to mitigate risk.

“It’s important to approach conversations which may be difficult or become emotionally charged with caution,” she said. “If your Employee Assistance Program provider offers a Manager Support Service, it can be worthwhile to take the time to prepare for the conversation with some professional support and guidance to help mitigate the risk of unintentionally inflaming a situation when an employee’s anxiety levels may already be heightened.

“It’s also important that current practice is appropriately reflected in organisational policy to ensure there are no misunderstandings, for example the rapid change to remote working. Have clear expectations been set around what work looks like when done from home and how performance will be measured in a remote context? What was once thought to be a short-term solution has developed into a long-term change, and organisations need to clearly articulate what that means for their employees.”

Read more: 7 tips for building resilience for employees in lockdown

In this time of heightened anxiety, fear, and stress, operating from a place of empathy and compassion is a good place to start. It sounds simple, but taking a human approach has a powerful effect on diffusing tension. Fitzsimons said when the social contract, or the interpersonal relationship, between an employee and employer becomes strained that is when they start to see increased probability of a claim.

These relationships can become even more fragile when managers and their employees are dispersed. Without seeing each other face to face, it can become easy to forget that the people on the other side of the screen are human too. HR leaders should encourage managers to regularly check in with employees and train them to spot the signs of worsening mental health. Having cameras on during video calls can allow managers to see what’s going on more clearly, as well as build a stronger relationship with their employees.

Alex Hattingh, chief people officer of people-management platform, Employment Hero, said fostering that sense of connection is key, especially when people are apart.

"Organise social virtual events, where human connection can still be had, like a fun event that the kids can join,” she said. “We've done Drag Queen Bingo, we have a magician this Friday night, and we allow extended families to also join the Zoom link from their homes.”

Even something as simple as allowing people to stay on the video call after an all-hands meeting is an opportunity for people to chat socially, away from the pressure of a scheduled ‘work’ meeting. Organisations have also relied heavily on feedback tools to gauge how their employees are coping at any one point in time. The data is invaluable in highlighting pain points and directing resources where they are needed most, which helps avoid a disconnect between expectation and reality.

Read more: There's a mental health pandemic coming – here's how to prepare

This disconnect is a particularly acute problem in New Zealand, according to new research. The Skills Consulting Group Wellbeing Index, which surveyed nearly 1500 workers and 105 HR managers in New Zealand, found that across all areas of wellbeing HR managers believe their company performs better than employees do.

This mismatch between the expectations of HR managers and the reality felt by employees is even bigger when it comes to whether organisations act with genuine care. While 80% of HR managers said their business delivered genuine care to employees, only 60% of workers felt the same. So what’s going wrong? It’s down to whether supporting mental health is seeing as a bolt-on “nice thing to do” – rather than a fundamental role of the business.

Hattingh encouraged HR leaders to put mental health front and centre by encouraging leaders to share their own experiences. Ultimately, a caring culture starts from the top.

“Have your CEO and leaders speak to the importance of taking care of your mental health during lockdown and remove the stigma,” she said. “This could be at the company All-Hands, or through a company-wide video. Acknowledge everyone's circumstances are different and this lockdown is not easy for anyone.”

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