The UK is teetering on the brink of reopening. The mental health crisis created by the pandemic, however, is only beginning to unfold and is one of the most pressing challenges for businesses to address.
After constant anxiety around job security, isolation pressures and the blurring of work and home boundaries this year, mental illnesses have been exacerbated and bred by, the coronavirus crisis. While there has been a growing trend towards health and wellbeing in workplaces as a corporate KPI, an urgent reset on how business leaders govern their companies is necessary to keep staff happy, engaged, productive and loyal.
In a pandemic, mental health programmes are a matter of boardroom importance, not merely to be delegated to line managers or online training programs. What many leaders are yet to realise is the impact of their own actions on staff wellbeing.
It’s a tale as old as time: leadership teams say mental health comes first, but then push employees to the point of burnout. Company-wide emails promote “Wellness Wednesdays”, but they continue to miss tell-tale signs of mental illness because they don’t listen to their people. Many can’t even hear the concerns of their workforce, because they have no way to connect with frontline staff.
There needs to be a new type of leadership, not merely more seminars on meditation. When times are hard, people don’t want to work for a stiff upper lip or a brave face. They want to work for leaders who are accountable, empathetic and vulnerable.
This will necessitate new levels of transparency. Employees want to know the views of company leaders on societal issues like climate, diversity and inclusion. Mental health is no different – people want company leaders to share their experiences here too. This will help cultivate a culture where vulnerability is no longer seen as a weakness and employees want to stick around for the long-haul.
We have seen the beginnings of this during the pandemic – 46 per cent of UK employees told Workplace their company leadership were open about their mental health challenges during Covid-19. But there’s a long way to go to normalise these conversations at work.
The other critical piece here is how leaders create space for these conversations. Let’s face it, you can’t show empathy through a mass email. There needs to be open, two-way dialogue between employees and leadership. This requires, first and foremost, access to those in charge. Companies who instituted regular, open conversations between staff and CEOs and other leaders during Covid-19 were able to glean real insight into the struggles of their workforce. It invited an open conversation of what was really happening.
Today the stakes are even higher and empathy is no longer a “nice to have”, it’s critical for attracting and retaining talent. Demographics in the workplace have changed and attitudes towards mental health have changed. Employers have demanded more from their staff during the pandemic and in turn staff must demand more from their employers.
Empathy is no longer the preserve of visionary leaders, it is the cornerstone of corporate culture of the future.