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Coping With Covid19: Ensuring Mental Wellbeing

by Mark Ellwood

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Covid19 has introduced many changes to the way we live. From turning our homes - our sanctuaries - into our workspaces, to turning us into part-time home schoolers, to completely changing the way we view personal hygiene and physical wellbeing.

We are now at a point where some promising vaccines are on the horizon and we can glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel.  But all of the dramatic changes during 2020 have impacted everybody and in different ways. Some have lost their jobs, some have lost loved ones. And we’ve all lost the certainties of the pre-Covid19 life. This has impacted us all, to one degree or another, mentally.

 

Mental Wellbeing in Asia

Mental wellbeing is an often-overlooked aspect of the workplace. This is especially true in Asia because, according to the Department of Psychiatry, Perak College of Medicine in Malaysia, “mental health and mental health care have not become a high priority in most Asian countries, despite the recent emphasis at international level”. As a result, according to the country’s Penang Institute, quality psychiatric care is relatively hard to obtain in Malaysia. In fact, Malaysian Medics International (MMI) says that as there simply aren’t enough psychiatrists for the population. In Singapore, the Singapore Mental Health Study 2016 found that 78.6 per cent of adults in the country with mental health conditions did not receive treatment in the past 12 months. The treatment that does exist is very expensive, and according to Anthea Ong, writing in TODAY, “many Singaporeans, particularly young people and those from lower income groups, are unable to bear such a financial burden”

 

Duty of Care

With these issues in mind, it has become even more important during Covid19 for employers to take their duty of care to their employees seriously, including mental health.

So, what measures can employers and team managers take to help ensure their employees’ mental wellness?

 

1. Open Communication

It is important that managers openly discuss possible mental health challenges with their teams and make the staff aware that there are avenues for help. This breaks down the stigma of discussing mental heath at work and proactively makes the first move towards staff, rather than waiting for staff to express their own concerns – which often doesn’t happen due to fears that they will be viewed as less capable or less reliable. Removing this barrier of silence is the first step in tackling any problems in the team.

 

2. Understanding Mental Health

Promote a team-wide understanding of mental health basics. This should include awareness that mental health isn’t a black-and-white, sick/not sick issue. Rather, it is a broad spectrum of ailments with different severities that affect people to varying degrees. It should also include a basic guide to recognising the signs and symptoms that your colleagues may be suffering – changes in behaviour or mood swings for example. Signing up to some mental health training for the workplace could go a long way to covering these requirements.

 

3. Support Structure

Implement a system of support in the workplace that could include welfare buddying, online welfare catch-ups (on a 1-to-1 basis) or a mental health ambassador in the team or in the HR department. Then people will know who the first point of call should be, and this person can raise it with the appropriate parties in management and the HR team confidentially. But furthermore, managers should adopt a totally open-door policy on the matter so that the entire team know they can be honest with their manager without fear of repercussions to their status. The support is there to help, not hinder.  In this way problems can be identified at earlier stages before they become severe – allowing staff to be helped quicker and possibly recover more speedily. Mental health training for the workplace should also cover approaches for managers – how to listen to individuals explain that they are finding things difficult.

 

4. Create Resources

Employee Assistance Programs (EAP)s can be an invaluable resource for employees experiencing mental health issues. The programs include such benefits as free third-party counselling for issues with stress, work problems and family and personal relationship concerns. It should also be linked to HR advice on any leave of absence arrangements available under company policies and applicable local laws. If you do have, or implement, an EAP, a good idea is to an create an intranet space where all this information can be easily accessed and also to regularly remind employees of the resources available to them.

 

5. Promote Inclusion & Positivity

One major trigger that can lead to mental health issues is a feeling of exclusion dues to external stressors (childcare for example, or difficult home working circumstances). We published a blog dedicated to inclusion of remote workers last month, along with proposed measures to ensure inclusion – take a look at it here.

Another trigger is the difficulty we humans have in judging the external situation regarding the pandemic. As Risk Magazine puts it, “As the pandemic has lingered and social distancing, remote working, business shutdowns, school closures and economic uncertainty have led to greater stress and isolation, the toll on mental health has increased.” All our information on these matters is gleaned from television and online news. Ensuring the positive stories at work are given ample airtime and that meetings are as positive as possible can help off-set all the negative news. A focus on celebrating achievements and overcoming challenges is better than dwelling on what may otherwise come to pass.

 

6. Setting Realistic Goals

Some people are very good at setting boundaries between work time and personal time, others not so.  It is therefore helpful for employers and managers to step in and set clear guidelines.  Get the team together and look at what is realistically possible, given all your commitments. Does this mean  a reduction in what your ‘core hours’ should be? Does it mean more flexible deadlines and a greater degree of fluidity in timelines? Discourage always-on working and allow staff to have defined, undisturbed personal time.

 

In the end, firms and line manages need to understand that, with mental health, it is not the case that the hardiest employees will pull through, whereas the weaker ones may fall by the wayside. This is not how mental health works. In fact, it could be that your brightest and most capable team members are the ones who develop mental issues. Essentially, mental health problems can affect anybody at any time and in order to keep the talent in the firm, employers need to show their staff that they value their wellbeing above all other considerations and regardless of where they sit in the corporate structure.