Awareness of mental health – and the financial impact it has on organisations – is on the up. Now, according to Pinar Karabulut (pictured), psychologist and rehabilitation consultant at QBE European Operations, the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) has led to high demand for quality data collection and research on the subject.
Karabulut believes employers can use this time to ensure that they maintain skilled employees over the long term by demonstrating genuine care and attention to their needs.
“In return, the positive association created, and increased level of trust and engagement is likely to lead to long-term retention of talent,” she said. “I think the current pandemic has demonstrated that the ‘bare minimum’ is certainly not good enough. Industry-specific innovative solutions are required to ensure that employees feel well supported and maintain trust that, when the times are tough, they can reach out to their employers.”
There are several key impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on individuals that everybody should be mindful of during the outbreak, these include:
- How the increased levels of loneliness caused by social isolation can exacerbate existing mental health issues, as well as contributing to a depressed mood.
- How loss of income and the resulting financial insecurity are likely to increase stress levels and contribute to relationship difficulties.
- How uncertainty and heightened anxiety will be experienced by most people and is to be expected. The challenge is how to become comfortable with uncertainty.
“The current pandemic is testing every business and their leaders,” said Karabulut. “While there has been significant work to improve workplace mental health and wellbeing strategies over the past decade, the current climate is raising mental health awareness more than we ever thought possible.”
QBE has implemented a substantial number of measures to protect the mental health of its employees during this crisis, several of which were in place before the government ordained lockdown. To comply with the lockdown restrictions, QBE initiated a fast and smooth transition to work from home arrangements but, while most QBE employees were used to utilising this benefit, becoming a home-based worker on a full-time basis has introduced new challenges to many.
“Given the increasing trend indicating more people are working from home where able, it is certainly time for employers to review their current strategies and assess their efficacy,” Karabulut said. “The current pandemic is undoubtedly a timely opportunity to employ evidence-based technological solutions and consider utilising telehealth tools to facilitate psychological and ergonomic support as required.”
Offering a multi-faceted approach to employee wellbeing is essential and QBE has looked to support the full sphere of its employees’ requirements during this difficult time by combining a focus on both physical and mental health. The range of support offered varies from offering an office equipment allowance to ensuring employees have access to ergonomic means of home-working, to introducing “Wellbeing Wednesdays” which emphasise different wellbeing benefits each week with a wellbeing “challenge” and prize-draw to increase engagement.
Karabulut outlined how the introduction of a high-level ‘Wellbeing Survey’ has allowed QBE to check in with employees during the pandemic. It has actively promoted its existing mental wellbeing offering through regular communications to employees within QBE’s dedicated intranet page on COVID-19. This intranet page includes a free Headspace subscription; Employee Assistance Program (EAP); resources and advice from QBE’s charity partner ‘Mind’; the Mental Health First Aider network, and QBE’s dedicated mental health employee network – ‘Open Mind’.
Karabulut believes that there are several ways in which employers can and should support their staff’s mental wellbeing during this time and outlined three essential steps to doing this effectively.
- Identify: Employers should identify any changes in the motivation and mood of their team members by implementing regular check-ins and setting up times for frank conversations that can lead to increased engagement and act as a gateway to providing support.
- Communicate: Staff must be kept fully up-to-date with the employee wellbeing benefits currently in place. These benefits should include several wellbeing aids and solutions, from informative webinars, to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), to health support through private medical insurance.
- Inform: Mental wellbeing and resilience can be strengthened through increased knowledge of how to practically carry out these concepts, and employers should consider arranging regular wellbeing webinars focusing on sleep hygiene, exercise, relaxation, and maintaining social connections in the digital world. Collective engagement in health-related behaviours can improve motivation and social connectedness.
Employers must support the wellbeing of their employees whether they are working in a traditional office environment or remotely and, with the advanced feelings of disconnection that the pandemic can lead to, it is more important than ever that employee support is transparent. However, Karabulut noted that there are also numerous ways that employees can guard their own mental health at this time, and her top five tips include:
- Be mindful of your internal dialogue: This is an exceptional time and adjustment takes time. Be kind to yourself and celebrate your “wins” throughout the week.
- Establish boundaries: Our brains respond well to rituals and, when practised regularly, they can easily become part of our daily schedule. Make sure to both start and end the day with definitive structure.
- Practice breathing techniques regularly to reduce hypervigilance and stress: The box breathing technique is practical and takes only 20 seconds. It will help you feel re-energised and manage stress especially ahead of important meetings. Breathe in for five seconds; hold for five seconds; breathe out for five seconds, and rest for five seconds.
- Connect: Check-in with your colleagues outside of formal meetings. The mental health benefits of feeling connected are significant and people can continue to benefit from them by using technology effectively.
- Physical activity: Exercise is proven to reduce anxiety and stress, and to elevate mood levels. Unless they are self-quarantining, everybody should exercise outdoors and pay attention to their surroundings, which will help with maintaining physical and mental fitness.
One silver lining that Karabulut believes will come out of the current crisis is a potential reduction in mental health stigma, and she hopes that increased levels of empathy towards other people suffering from mental health conditions will be seen following the pandemic.
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