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The intersection of COVID-19 and mental health

In the wake of World Mental Health Day, RSM International’s new Leader for Diversity and Inclusion, Candice Eaton looks at how middle-market businesses can support employee mental wellness as a key aspect of workplace wellbeing amidst and beyond the global pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has acted as a significant catalyst for mental healthcare, with the crisis sparking concern for the emotional wellbeing of entire populations. Around the world, many people are trying to manage symptoms of stress and anxiety stemming from new ways of working, a fear of contracting the virus and unexpected financial challenges. In the digital sphere, mindfulness and meditation apps are trending and almost every social interaction is preceded with an emotional wellbeing ‘check-in’. 

Short term responses vs long term sustainability

In terms of destigmatising the topic of mental health, this change in behaviour is good news and bodes well for the ‘new normal’ that we are all working towards. That said, there is still much work to do and it is the responsibility of employers and employees alike to make sure we normalise mental wellness, as we do with physical wellness. Considering how we deal with mental illness in the long term is finally starting to get the attention it deserves. Earlier in the year, The World Health Organisation released a memo articulating the most critical psychosocial considerations during COVID-19, and importantly, emphasised that “the current situation will not go away overnight and [the focus should be] on longer-term occupational capacity rather than repeated short-term crisis responses.” 

Prior to the pandemic, many businesses had already increased their focus on workplace mental wellbeing but, today, those efforts are even more imperative.

As we navigate various transitions over the coming months and years, we are likely to see employees struggle with anxiety, depression, burnout, trauma, and PTSD. Those mental health experiences will differ according to economic opportunity, caregiving responsibilities, job type and many other variables. So, what can employers do to support people as they face a myriad of new stressors and upheaval? 

The RSM approach to tackling mental health

With people being RSM’s greatest asset, the importance of workplace wellbeing has long been at the forefront of the network’s business agenda. But, as COVID-19’s presence made itself increasingly known, member firms have thrown more weight behind proactively supporting mental wellness initiatives, , and being empathetic where there are people suffering from mental health issues.

RSM UK’s creation of a Mental Health Champions Programme stemmed from an early recognition that mental ill-health within our profession was on the increase. Recognising the significance of this, they took a planned approach to raising awareness of the importance of mental wellbeing, tackling the stigma that may have existed around mental ill-health, and putting in place tangible support for their people. RSM UK’s Mental Health First Aid Champions Programme is just one of the support mechanisms that they have introduced in recent years. Others include: a calendar of regular articles, webinars, hints and tips on mental wellbeing on their intranet; training workshops for managers to give them the skills to identify when someone in their team might be struggling; and the tools for effective conversations and sign-posts to sources of support.

In the United States, RSM recently launched an enhanced flexibility system and coaching line to offer an opportunity for the firm’s people to discuss their needs and find flexibility support that is right for them. To help with family care needs related to the pandemic, they expanded their child and elder care benefit programmes and modified their extended care cash programme for employees to use taxable reimbursements to help offset these costs. RSM US’ care for its employees also extends to their family members, and they offer access to resources for family support services, including virtual learning and tutoring, nanny services and college coaching.  

At RSM Uruguay the team have been offering personal coaching sessions for those experiencing difficulties, ensuring that they have been attentive and available to support the different employee needs that might arise. The firm has also carried out ‘A talk with HR’ every two weeks, including people from all departments and levels. In these sessions they seek to be closer to their people and talk about all issues, from development and wellbeing to health and emotional management.

RSM South Africa has used the knowledge and guidance of one of their employees who is a registered psychologist, to create webinars on significant emotions like managing anxiety and depression. Having a psychologist join meetings to talk to teams about their specific emotional concerns has added great value and assisted in proactively protecting mental wellness as well as the performance of the teams. It has also created an environment where individuals feel more comfortable seeking assistance directly should there be a confidential matter they wish to discuss. 

Our final example is RSM Australia, whose team has sent out a pulse survey every few weeks targeting a different topic, such as working from home, wellbeing, mental health, returning to the workplace and the like. In recent times, they have been focusing on looking ahead and sparking excitement in their people in terms of how they can take their learnings from the last year, and use it to provide an even better employee and client experience in the future.
What else can organisational leadership teams do?

Dealing with issues regarding mental wellness is just as common amongst top management as they are in any other organisational level. It  is important to lead by example in reducing stigma around mental wellness and this starts with being able to have conversations that are open and honest. In the current environment, business leaders need to be able to demonstrate their own healthy behaviours, and that includes sharing their challenges, and how they deal or have dealt with them. Listening to how colleagues speak about their problems, understanding the issues they are facing and taking note of any behavioural changes is critical for taking proactive action in taking care of those around us. . Alongside this, there are other practical ideas for engaging and promoting mental wellness:

  • Use training and development tools available - Now more than ever, it is important to proactively prioritise workplace mental health training for all employees. Top management leads by example and has the power to enforce education and awareness. Assess courses or articles that will help to broaden thought and awareness on mental wellness and make them part of the next team discussion. 
  • Document revised organisational policies – in the last few months, the way businesses have had to adapt has been both swift and significant. Avoid confusion and ambiguity by making sure that there are policies in place to regulate the specific changes and set out the expectations for both leadership and employees. Where possible, take the learnings from the shift to function differently, and adapt that into the revised way that business is conducted, around the world the changes to business processes and practices provided a key learning opportunity to take advantage of that learning may require reaching out to diverse groups within the organisation to understand their views of the challenges and benefits that these changes provided. 
  • Understand revised organisational policies -  Where policies are in place regarding revised working arrangements, flexitime policies and the like, business leaders should ensure that they fully understand the revised policies for their employees as well as the effects they will have on the business functioning, productivity and profit. Understanding policies and options available to employees is useful when it comes to making quick decisions as to whether an employee request can be accommodated. Fairness and consistency are key to ensuring that employees do not begin to feel that there is favouritism or exclusion.  
  • Reflect on business values – there has never been a time where it has been more important to thrive and not just survive. Reflect on the values of the business and ask the difficult questions, are those values still appropriate; and if they are, when crisis hit, where those values held as the guiding light under which all decisions were made, and did that give comfort to employees and help to reduce some of the anxiety they were feeling. Courageous leaders are asking employees through anonymous surveys whether they believe that leadership has acted within the framework of the business values, and if not what their experience was, and what they could have done, and should still do to provide more emotional support. 
  • Communication – Provide opportunities for employees to be able to give feedback on effectiveness of mental wellness initiatives, as well as areas that they believe could be further addressed. The importance of one on one discussions and nurturing relationships has profound benefits but even a short survey can highlight areas of excellence and where awareness, education or resources could be focussed. Assessing information gathered from employees can provide critical insights. There is research being conducted that is showing that when countries started to enforce lockdowns and businesses had to make drastic shifts to their working environments, women in the workplace had a disproportionately greater fear of job insecurity than their male colleagues, being able to reflect on information like this and understand why that could be, as well as demographics affected by job losses, may uncover areas of unintentional discrimination. 

Focussing on mental wellness is critical to maximise organisational performance. The stigma that still surrounds mental health issues hampers initiatives that are required to get this area of employee wellbeing as a point of focus. As we move towards the new normal and increasing economic activity, business leaders need to understand employees and their holistic needs, in order to have high levels of engagement, productivity and creativity that is so necessary to finding opportunity in the future.