Even before COVID-19, workplaces have been changing rapidly. Organisations have increasingly been required to deal with mental health challenges such as stress, burnout, and executive loneliness. With the economic pressures and accompanying health and safety issues of COVID-19, leaders are increasingly required to think about mental health strategically as it affects the core of the organisation’s talent resource over the mid and long term.
There is an urgent need for senior management to take note and lead on mental wellbeing within their organisations. In the same way that corporations view physical health and safety of their employees as a top priority, a similar approach is needed for building long-term mental wellbeing programmes within their companies.
The pandemic has resulted in many now working from their home, thus blurring the line between the workplace and the home - which has hitherto been a source of rest and respite from the pressures and stress of the workplace. This has resulted in a situation where “bringing work home” has introduced a new level of continuing stress on a 24/7 basis.
"Making available mental health first aid courses for managers and peers across an organisation gives employees a range of people to turn to, raise awareness of and reduce the stigma around mental health. This is similar to the presence of medical ﬁrst aid boxes and deﬁbrillator machines in ofﬁce premises, standing ready for employees that may need to use them for physical health issues in the workplace."
--Jeffery Tan, Jardine Cycle & Carriage
The impact of stress and burnout is real. In 2020 the World Health Organisation incorporated stress and burnout in its disease classification system, recognising that a chronic syndrome can result from chronic stress unless it is successfully managed. Signs and symptoms of this include energy depletion, exhaustion, negative feelings towards others and an overall reduction in work productivity. Working from home (away from colleagues and the work community) has also introduced the dimension of loneliness and isolation.
ADDRESSING MENTAL HEALTH
Given that signiﬁ cant portion of our lives are focused on work, workplace leaders have an obligation (and an opportunity) to address the mental health and well-being of their employees. Steps that can be taken include the following:
- Have an advocate for mental well-being at the highest level within a corporation. Unless there is senior leadership oversight and accountability for mental health and well-being, this area will not receive the needed level of focus and attention. Without those at the top setting the tone and being seen to lead in this area, mental health can quickly slip down a corporation’s agenda into lessened importance.
- Awareness and training. Unless the core of managers in an organisation are made aware of mental health issues and how to respond and refer team members to get the requisite help and support; this will continue to be a challenge for organisations. Making available mental health first aid courses for managers and peers across an organisation gives employees a range of people to turn to, raise awareness of and reduce the stigma around mental health. This is similar to the presence of medical ﬁrst aid boxes and deﬁbrillator machines in ofﬁce premises, standing ready for employees that may need to use them for physical health issues in the workplace.
- Communication. Making mental wellbeing part of line manager meetings and delivering outreach calls for those experiencing stress, anxieties and other mental health issues related to COVID-19, allows for developing issues to be identiﬁed early, when intervention can be at its most effective. Clear communication by leaders to create a safe environment for employees to raise mental health issues and that this will be met with support, and not stigma, is important.
- Prioritizing social connection and group care. Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford University, an organisational behaviour expert, writes in the McKinsey Quarterly: “Almost anything that brings people into contact in a pleasant and meaningful context – from holidays to community service to events that celebrate employee tenure or shared successes such as product launches – helps build a sense of common identity and strengthens social bonds.”
There is no “magic bullet” for workplace mental health, as a large part of mental well-being comes down to creating more human-centred work cultures that put employees first. A human-centred culture emphasizes the connections among employees and the purpose behind their work, especially in these COVID-19 times. As biblical wisdom goes, we are, after all, “our brothers’ (and sisters’) keeper.”
Jeffery Tan is the Group General Counsel; Director, Group Corporate Affairs; Chief Sustainability Ofﬁcer; and Group Company Secretary of Jardine Cycle & Carriage Ltd. He has more than three decades of private practice and in-house experience, in both legal and business roles, with UTAC Holdings, Allen & Gledhill, DLA Piper, Siemens, Motorola and more.