Illuminate work with organisations to help keep their staff in the right mind for business. In this article, Lisa Whittleton, Director & trainer, explores some of the long-term risks that businesses need to consider.

What risks do businesses need to consider?

Mental ill health has been a major concern for the UK for some time, and the current crisis only exacerbates this.

We are all becoming increasingly aware of the short term impact the uncertainty and loss of what we knew to be ‘normality’ is having on our mental health and many of us are finding ways to adapt how we work, how we live, and the support mechanisms we use to stay well/sane. But it is important to be aware of the potential longer-term risks that businesses may face as a result of the way we are currently living, so that these can be minimised and a proactive approach to supporting the wellbeing of our teams can be taken.  

We have seen a naivety from many of the businesses we are talking to that this is very much only a temporary situation and although stressful, a belief from business owners that people will be relieved and able to return to ‘normal’ in no time. Re-integration into ‘normality’ will not be easy for everyone.

For many people living alone, aside from the odd keyworker, and stranger they pass in the street at a 2m distance, they will not have had any physical human contact. None of us will have had contact with larger groups or busy environments. To suddenly jump from no contact at all to being on a cramped train or in a loud office will for many, be difficult to manage, as our brains have had to re-programme to help us accept the current isolation in which we live. This may well create anxieties, feelings of panic, conflicts with others, absenteeism, and/or presenteeism.  A phased return, and support to integrate back in gradually will be vital in helping staff adjust back without it having a detrimental effect on their mental health.  

The way we work will have changed forever, we will be able to make more use of technology for meetings, reducing travel, time, and cost. More of us will be able to work from home. I am relieved that for many of our clients who had for so long been reluctant to give home working a go due to lack of trust, they now recognise that it is an option and for those who need it as a reasonable adjustment, this can now be accommodated.  We do however need to recognise the negative impact that working solely from home could have in terms of initiative, creativity, motivation and teamwork so we achieve the right balance, and get the most out of our people. Understanding how individuals best work, their preferences and their circumstances is really important rather than making a decision based on business needs only. 

For those individuals with an underlying mental health condition, isolation, changes to their routine and loss of existing coping strategies will have exacerbated their symptoms. A client of mine with depression lives alone and was making progress in early March and feeling more positive. He stated that he now feels trapped with no escape from his thoughts and is starting to give up on himself again. He did not feel able to reach out to his manager as he only saw her on team calls, and the overriding message at work was how well everyone was adapting and to stay strong. This situation could create fractured working relationships long term and could potentially cause a fantastic valued worker to take time off from work or even consider leaving. How we as leaders respond to this crisis and our team members now will have a significant influence on their wellbeing longer term.

Another contact with an anxiety disorder described week 2 of isolation as ‘perfect’. The familiarity of home eased their anxieties as they knew they would not have to be out of their comfort zone on public transport, in the office or at a networking event. At the start of week 4, this individual had begun to experience fear about integrating back into society, their work, their social groups. They felt as though all the strategies that they had learnt to manage their condition were now lost. It is likely that many people with underlying conditions will need additional support as well as patience, understanding and flexibility to get back on track in the future.  

I found that when we first faced this unprecedented situation, I was having more ‘real’ and human conversations with people. We all face this difficult situation together and so there was an empathy and a desire to connect and talk about the current landscape e.g. how we hate uncertainty, how we feel out of control, how we are worried about the health of our loved ones, or how actually we needed the space and time out to take a breather! My fear is that we will not take this openness with us in life and business in the long term.

Also, although some barriers are broken down, how open are we being about how we really feel? There was a stigma surrounding mental health prior to the pandemic – which still very much exists. Many businesses we talk to feel their staff are adapting very well, and no issues have been raised, therefore everything is fine. But it is tricky to admit you are feeling low, struggling to focus at work, or too anxious to sleep when it seems everyone around you is keeping positive and “getting on with it”. Many individuals will be keeping these mental health issues bottled up, and when we are able to reintegrate into the world – will still be carrying them around. How might this then impact their work in the future?

For others who are thriving through these times, what strategies do they use, and are we as businesses focusing on keeping them well?

I know of situations where furloughed staff are loving the fact that they get to spend quality time with children / loved ones. There may however be a time limit on how long they love this setup. Some furloughed staff will have lost their ‘mojo’, their sense of purpose and self-worth, which was part of what kept them well, maybe even without them realising it. Without the daily routine, structure, sense of achievement and success, our mood can be significantly impacted. Managers who have kept communication going with their teams, even the furloughed staff, and involved them in team updates / social chats, can help to maintain that sense of purpose and belonging that we need as humans. In the last month, I have had multiple conversations with individuals, some of them friends of mine, who are considering leaving their jobs as they don’t feel valued. Losing staff is a cost that could be avoided and emphasises the need for businesses to plan ahead to retain their key staff members.

To minimise the risks to our businesses longer term, we do need to understand what challenges people are really facing now and on an ongoing basis so we can plan ahead and involve people in the decisions that are made. Considerations around personality traits such as whether someone is introvert vs extravert, how they are managing, what they need to feel resilient during these times, what is their preference for structure vs autonomy, what is their home-setup? A one size fits all approach does not work. Although understanding individual needs takes time, it will save businesses a lot of time in the long run.

What are you currently doing to support your teams, both organisation-wide and individually to help keep them in the right mind for business and minimise some of the above risks?

We would love to hear about any initiatives you are running or if you would like guidance on how we can support with these issues remotely then please get in touch via lisa.whittleton@illuminatevr.co.uk or call 07784 558552.

 You can find out more about Illuminate here: www.illuminatevr.co.uk