Is Improving Mental Health baked into your hybrid working strategy?

In 2020, almost everyone was talking about the effect of enforced working from home. Studies were quickly undertaken where academics explored how the sudden change in working arrangements had affected people – in particular their mental health.

Burnout was common. Depression and stress were often being triggered by a low quality of leadership – because leaders were simply not equipped to manage people remotely. This BMC Public Health analysis from 2022 said: “While personal factors are not controllable, the quality of leadership provided to employees, and the ‘place and pattern’ of work, can be actively managed to positive effect. Innovative flexible working practices will help to build greater workforce resilience.”

In the early days of the pandemic it was clear that executives needed to manage rapid change across a number of fronts. Many were moving to a work from home (WFH) environment with no experience of remote management. Many leaders had no way to manage without constantly calling and micro-managing their team and many individual team members found that working in this environment, with none of the social activities of a workplace, became intolerable.

But how have attitudes and management practices changed? Have companies learned how to work within this flexible environment or are they still muddling through?

Learning from our WFH mistakes:

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development stated in their 2022 Health and Wellbeing at work report that ‘management style’ is still a main cause of work-related stress. The report stated: “This finding is a stark reminder of the negative impact people managers can have on people’s mental wellbeing, if they are not trained and supported to go about their management role in the right way. Good people management can help manage and prevent stress which can be linked to common mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.”

The CIPD has created some practical guidance for managers, to help them become more aware of how their actions can influence the mental health of their reports.

What the research is telling us:

Research by the International Labour Organisation titled ‘transforming enterprises through diversity and inclusion’ notes that the experience of the pandemic has elevated the importance of how companies manage the mental health of their employees. The report said: “The physical and mental health and well-being of employees quickly rose to the top of the enterprise agenda as it became critical to continue operations at the start of the global crisis (Fisher 2020). Remote working has been implemented at scale, almost overnight, with many enterprises now moving towards ‘hybrid’ working, i.e. mixing remote and office-based work, even though that was unthinkable for many before the pandemic”

Forbes published an analysis of research from the office group IWG. This said that WFH and hybrid workers are in a strong position to improve their mental health because they exercise more, they don’t waste time commuting, they sleep more, and all this additional exercise and sleep is drastically improving mental health.

The Harvard Business Review said: “In 2020, mental health support went from a nice-to-have to a true business imperative. Fast forward to 2021, and the stakes have been raised even higher thanks to a greater awareness of the workplace factors that can contribute to poor mental health, as well as heightened urgency around its intersections with DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion).”

The HBR article makes some powerful statements about how employees now see their workplace: “Employees need and expect sustainable and mentally healthy workplaces, which requires taking on the real work of culture change. It’s not enough to simply offer the latest apps or employ euphemisms like “well-being” or “mental fitness.” Employers must connect what they say to what they actually do.”

Planning your hybrid strategy:

This is the real message. Before the pandemic, helping employees manage their mental health was the type of support that a responsible employer would offer. Others would see it as an unnecessary expense. The HBR research notes that, when they surveyed employees, 76% said they had reported the symptoms of at least one mental health condition in the previous year.

Three-quarters of the workforce have faced at least one mental health issue in the previous year. This is why the sudden change since the pandemic needs to be baked into boardroom strategy. More people are talking about their mental health and attempting to deal with problems through treatment or therapy – rather than just “coping.” It also applies to all levels of the organisation – even the top. 

There are also many specific factors about how work is organised that can contribute to mental health conditions. In the HBR research, 84% of respondents said that at least one workplace factor was influential in their mental health problems. 

The way we were working before the pandemic was not working. By adopting WFH and hybrid work with good communication and support we can create workplaces that don’t contribute to stress and anxiety. It’s in the interest of both the employer and employee and can contribute to a wider strategy focused on diversity and inclusion. 

What is your own post-Covid strategy and does it directly embrace how to improve the mental health of your employees?

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