It is Mental Health Awareness Week 2021. The theme this year is Nature.
The organisers have cited two goals for this year’s event:
- to inspire more people to connect with nature in new ways, noting the positive impact experience of nature and the outdoors can have on everyone’s mental health; and
- to convince decision makers at all levels that access to and quality of nature is a mental health and social justice issue as well as an environmental one.
For employers, managers and HR teams who have spent the last year battling to support their staff through the practical and emotional challenges of the pandemic, this year’s event will take on extra significance. Factors such as: health concerns; remote working; furlough (a term unknown to most of us a year ago); redundancies; and layoffs, have all had a negative impact on workers’ mental health. Astute employers realised fairly early on in the first lockdown that lunchtime Teams/Zoom meetings, training sessions timed to coincide with family mealtimes and remote checks-ins, were making the situation worse not better. People needed to get outside and away from a screen.
Mental Health Awareness Week presents an opportunity for businesses to reflect on what went well and what could be improved in terms of managing mental health at work throughout the pandemic. It will also give businesses an opportunity to consider the impact their return to office working plans will have on the mental health of their staff. New risk assessments will inevitably follow.
As a nation, over the last year we have come to value the outdoors more than ever before. For many, Lockdown 3 was the hardest because the weather prevented people from venturing out in the way they had last spring/summer. Part of the attraction of the lockdown puppy craze was the way in which it forced us to don a jacket and get outside even on the darkest days when we would much rather pull the duvet over our heads.
All those briefing from the, now famous, Downing Street podiums have been at pains to stress the importance of outdoor exercise and fresh air during even the most restricted periods of the lockdown.
Assuming most employers will struggle to operate en plein air or allow their entire workforce to bring their lockdown puppies to work, what practical things can employers do to embrace nature in promoting good mental health as they seek to gradually bring their staff back into the office next months and beyond?
- Communication and Conversation: the charity MIND talks at length about the culture of fear and silence surrounding mental health. Similarly, the organisers of Mental Health Awareness Week describe “open, authentic conversations about mental health in the workplace” as “an essential building block” for workplace mental health. Workers will be anxious coming back to work and a dialogue recognising that anxiety and apprehension is essential.
- Walk and Talk: the lockdown social distancing guidelines have prevented most of us from being able to hold meetings, catch ups and check ins around a boardroom table. As a result, many employers have started to embrace the value of managers and their teams getting outside and conducting check ins on the go (on foot not driving!).
- Breaks: often the subject of dry legal and technical debate, rest breaks need to be exactly that – a break! Encouraging staff not to eat at their desks or in soulless, airless breakout rooms will help. Supporting local shops and businesses that have struggled so much during the lockdown will have a double benefit.
- Space: not every employer will have the ability to create their very own Kew Gardens Glasshouse within their offices but consider what can be done to improve workplace settings and communal areas. Fresh air is vital in the fight against the virus but also in promoting better mental health.
- Publicising schemes to promote positive mental health: cycle to work schemes, health club memberships, Employee Assistance Programmes are often contained within a handbook but how often are they highlighted at a strategic level?
- Mental Health Champions: larger employers will already have such roles but even smaller employers may consider appointing someone at a strategic level to oversee such issues in order to help maintain a focus.
- Social Responsibility Programmes: to what extent do these programmes allow workers to participate and give back to their communities whilst also supporting their own mental health.
The statutory and tortious duties on employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of all their employees at work have been rehearsed at length over the years. However, this year we have lived and breathed these challenges more than ever before. As workers return to the workplace, these challenges will continue. Awareness, spotting the signs and then acting on any concerns are the keys to success in promoting better mental health.