With Mental Health Week upon us, it is a timely moment to think about the way in which your business supports employees with mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. This is particularly the case in the light of recent changes that many have seen to their working model following COVID-19 and the growth in remote working.
Whilst the benefits of the flexibility offered by working from home have been seized upon by many, others point to the rising rate of loneliness among employees as being one of the major impacts of the pandemic on the workplace. The move to hybrid working has meant fewer in-person interactions with colleagues, and it seems people are finding it hard to replace the social element of the office. Research has shown that as many as 72% of employees have reported feeling lonely at work at least monthly, and 55% at least weekly. This is one reason that the Mental Health Foundation has made loneliness the theme of this year’s Mental Health Week.
The reality though is that loneliness is caused not just by the absence of people, but the absence of connection. Loneliness was an issue before COVID-19, and it would not simply disappear should everyone return to the office. Someone can be in a crowded office and experience loneliness if they are disconnected from their team or the work culture, and equally a remote worker can be fully engaged in their work and not feel lonely. It can lead to health problems, reduced productivity, and higher turnover of staff, which is why businesses need to look more broadly at how to strengthen connections between colleagues and work to create a sense of community.
It is crucial that business leaders do not assume that close and supportive working relationships will automatically be created. Rather than they recognise, in order to encourage them to develop, structures and practices can be put in place to enable these high-quality connections and maintain a productive work culture. One solution that, at PushFar, we have seen more and more companies turning to is an effective mentoring programme, with studies showcasing the benefits it can have on both professional and personal development.
One of the better recognised advantages of a mentoring relationship is the impact it can have on career progression. But for the same reason that it can help an individual with developing skills for their career, and offering guidance on their professional progression, it can be a huge source of support to those struggling with mental health issues. Structure and routine, as well as making and working towards long-term goals, are often beneficial for mental health, as often people are suffering from anxiety and fear for the future, making it challenging to plan ahead. A mentor can empower an employee to make a clear actionable plan for the future, with long-term goals they are held accountable for and supported in achieving.
A mentoring programme can be a particularly useful way in a remote working environment to ensure there is a support system in place so an employee does not feel alone in the workplace, in the knowledge that there is always someone to trust and turn to in the face of any obstacles. It also offers a way to build an internal network across the business and connect with individuals on a personal level who would perhaps not normally interact on a day-to-day basis.
Where people are in an office environment, there are many other routes to fostering stronger social connections between colleagues, and a culture of support and empathy. This might include encouraging people to have lunch together, through a “no eating at your desk” policy, which is a great way to get employees to take a break and chat with each other in a more informal setting. Companies could look to rethink team and work structures to incorporate more interdependence among colleagues. This might be as simple as regularly scheduled meetings for all staff to attend so that there is always a set time when the whole team has a chance to interact. Obviously with remote working teams, the same goes for virtual team meetings, allowing opportunities for the sharing of ideas.
The benefits of a strong, supportive community in the workplace are numerous, both for individuals’ mental health and the productiveness of the business. It is vital though that employers recognise the role that the business can play in building and encouraging these relationships. With effective leadership and thoughtful HR programmes, loneliness in the workplace can be stopped in its tracks.