Mental health at work: the runaway issue that mustn’t get away from us

Will business as usual dominate the workplace agenda once more as restrictions ease? Adrian Wakeling, Senior Policy Adviser at Acas, discusses

A year ago, I was kindly asked to share my thoughts on the impact the pandemic is having on our mental health at work. Back then, I asked the following question: ‘will it be said, that it took a pandemic to put mental health where it should be – at the front and centre of our daily considerations about working lives?’

A year on and I can partially answer that question. A recent Acas policy paper, The road to enlightenment, shares the experiences of three organisations we have been working with to help promote and safeguard good mental health. It’s fair to say that for all of them – Fujitsu, Amnesty and MOD’s Defence Intelligence – mental well-being has become, to quote Amnesty’s Sacha Draper, 'a runaway issue'.

This is perhaps not surprising: the mental health of the nation has taken a real knock but, on the plus side, we have become much more able to talk about how we are coping. Many employers are responding well to the challenge with mental health training for line managers, for example, more commonplace.

But it’s time for another question. As the next phase looms – I refuse to use the term ‘new normal’! – will this greater awareness of an employer’s duty of psychological care be maintained, or will business as usual dominate the workplace agenda once more?

The deep Covid-19 change curve
To answer this question, we need to get a real sense of what people are going through. We are all familiar with the ‘change curve’, which tracks the emotions we go through when dealing with profound change. It is very much like the ‘narrative arc’ used by all good storytellers, that takes us on a journey from shock, through to disbelief, despair, acceptance, adjustment and, ultimately, growth.

For me, the Covid-19 change curve has been deeper and will take much longer to work our way out of. The challenge is immense. On one level, we simply have so much information to process, about what is and isn’t safe, and so many predictions about what the future of work should look like – with hybrid working and the use of office ‘hot spots’ shaping our expectations. And on a more primal level, it’s worth remembering that we have been threatened by the virus and feel very vulnerable (on this note, Maslow’s hierarchy resonates).

What can employers do?
As a first step, what employers need to do is to try and bridge the gap between the experience of change during the pandemic and what we go through as part of normal change. To use the storytelling analogy again, it is about turning the never-ending saga back into a story everyone can relate to and understand. To do this, employers should focus on three aspects of the employment relationship:  

• Duty of care
Although it is a set out in statute (the Health and Safety Act 1974), the idea of a ‘duty of care’ can feel more than a little abstract. After all, although we know that 'every employer has a duty to ensure that …the health, safety and welfare of employees are protected', ‘welfare’ is quite hard to define, even with the aid of the HSE’s Management Stress Standards.

In the context of a return to work – though, let’s remember that many employees, notably those on the front line, have never left their place of work – physical safety clearly feels paramount. Surveys show that employees are genuinely, and understandably, very anxious for their safety. But if we have learnt one lesson about our health and well-being in the last year or more, it is that one condition seldom exists in isolation and symptoms can be hard to untangle and retrace to their source. Clinicians speak of ‘co-morbidity’; and employers and managers need to think about the mental health aspect of any change or adaptation at work. People might say ‘keep me safe’, but they will also be pleading with you to ‘keep me well.’   

• Trust
If I asked you to explain to me what the ‘psychological contract’ was, I’m sure you’d give it a good go, but I am not sure many of us fully grasp it. It’s got something to do with our expectations of work, particularly around values, behaviours and obligations. But if we stop and think about that a minute, surely all of these things have changed during the pandemic? The psychological contract is an unwritten bond, but this gives us a problem: how do we shift our relationships with work, our managers and each other and reach a new consensus if we only have a vague sense of what underpins our thinking?

For me, this gets to the heart of the drive for parity between mental and physical health. If the written contract of employment represents our physical wellbeing, the psychological contract represents our mental wellbeing. It has been in the shadows too long and needs to be re-thought and, yes, why not, written down! At its heart should be a collective renewal of the employment relationship that is based upon compassion, dignity and, above all, trust.

• Vision
We all want to have better jobs, better workplaces and, whisper it, better managers. This striving for better has been very well expressed in the ‘good work’ agenda, driven by Carnegie UK and the RSA, amongst others. A very big part of good work has always been job autonomy – having a say in how and when you do your job. Having a say in all its forms – often called employee voice – also figures highly in many measures of job satisfaction. If good mental health is built upon good jobs, as set out in the government review of mental health at work, then what can employers do to help us strive for better and, in doing so, feel better?

Returning to the deeper ‘Covid change curve’; employees need to be able to see, if not the end, then a way forward. This might be based upon different working patterns, new ways of communicating or just an open dialogue about how the business is coping. Transparency is paramount. Employers should share their vision for the future; one that is, hopefully, based upon sustainable jobs that offer job security and good working conditions. 

A year from now I would like to be able to say that mental health has become an integral part of every decision-making process and change programme at work. Here’s hoping.

Further Information: 

www.acas.org.uk

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