With many people returning to their usual place of work and anxiety levels rising, Antony Dowell offers advice for employees and employers

As stress awareness month draws to a close, it’s important that we continue to have greater awareness of the impact of stress on mental health in our daily lives.

Antony Dowell is the Campaigns and Partnerships Officer at Imagine Independence, and a fully qualified Mental Health First Aid trainer.

Here, Antony reflects on the rising levels of anxiety he is seeing in relation to the end of lockdown restrictions and, for many people, a return to their place of work. He also offers advice to employers about how they can support mental wellbeing and help their teams deal with a potential increase in stress levels.

Before the pandemic, mental health related absence was the most common cause of long-term sickness absence in UK workplaces. Work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 44% of work-related ill health and 54% of working days lost in 2018/19, according to the HSE.

As early as two weeks into lockdown, employees were reporting a range of health effects including negative impacts on mental health and overall well-being, and indications suggest that the pandemic will have a significant impact upon the mental health of employees for many months or even years.

Returning to our pre-pandemic lives

As we move closer to resuming our normal lives, lots of us are excited and counting down the days to seeing our loved ones freely, going back to our usual activities and returning to our pre-covid working patterns.

Lots of workplaces will stop homeworking when the restrictions allow or will move towards more flexible working, mixing both home and office working.

Those who’ve worked on the frontline, or continued working from their pre-pandemic base, have had huge stresses to work through. For many people, working from home was incredibly difficult and they needed support and time to adapt.

Then there are those who have thrived working from home, have found their work-life balance has improved alongside productivity and job satisfaction. Working from home has been a godsend for them, both physically and mentally, during the pandemic.

For these people, leaving home-working behind may mean increased worries about cleanliness and safety, child-care costs, reduction in family contact, changes to relationships, travel time and cost, less flexibility, micro-management and many more.

That means there are now huge numbers of people who are feeling overwhelmed and anxious and, just like at the start of the pandemic, we may be on the verge of a huge rise in mental ill-health.

Stress factors and stigma

We all have mental health. For most of us it changes with the things that happen in our lives. There are risk factors and protective factors all around us in our daily work and home lives.

Like our physical health, our mental health can be affected if risk factors are put in our way, such as stress related to work.

Like stress to the body, we can only be resilient to so much before there is impact. We’re all individuals and have different thresholds for coping with stress and risk factors, some of us bounce back with ease, others need help.

We often hear that mental illness is a hidden illness. People may choose to hide it because of stigma, but there are often warning signs that something isn’t right in ourselves or others.

Many of us still feel uncomfortable talking about our mental health. Compare this to office conversations about bad backs to see how we still treat our physical health differently to our mental health.

Many people are scared to speak up for fear of losing their job or promotion opportunities.

How employers can help

Most managers do want to help but often don’t have the training or support they need to help or may be worried about making things worse.

It can be difficult to spot the signs of mental ill health when their team members are working from home more.

However, early intervention and proactive support is the key to reducing work-related mental ill-health.

There is lots that employers can do to help those who may be struggling returning to work.

Spotting the signs

The big thing to look out for is a change someone’s behaviour - not easy if you’ve not been part of a physical team for a year. Irritability, inability to cope with tasks, missing deadlines, being tearful and tired are common signs of mental ill-health.

An increase in sickness absence may be related to mental ill-health or used to cover it.

Training and tools

The BBC offers a stress container exercise, which is a simple yet effective tool which enables people to make better choices. The things we can change are easier to plan for, but we also need to be aware of increasing resilience to the things we can’t change and develop a list of helpful responses. This exercise really helps with that.

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is an internationally recognised training course, designed to teach people how to spot the signs and symptoms of mental ill-health and provide help on a first aid basis.

In the same way as learning physical first aid, MHFA teaches people how to recognise those crucial warning signs and feel confident to guide someone to appropriate support.

Embedding MHFA training within any organisation also encourages people to talk more freely about mental health, reducing stigma and creating a more positive culture.

MHFA England has recently launched the My Whole Self toolkit as part of its new campaign for workplace culture change.

My Whole Self calls on organisations to empower people to bring their ‘whole self’ to work because it’s better for mental wellbeing and better for business.

Empowering people to be their authentic self isn’t just the right thing to do, it also makes good business sense. Being our whole self at work enables improved performance, boosting creativity and innovation. It builds psychological safety, deeper connections – and research shows these are a key ingredient in every successful team.

We may not have been through this situation before, but we do know that looking after ourselves and each other has become more important than ever. We need to be proactive in going one step further to ensure we know what help is at hand, and when it's needed.

To find out more about Imagine's Mental Health First Aid training, email Antony Dowell adowell@imagineindependence.org.uk.


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