The need for organisations to pay attention to the mental health of their employees has never been greater.

Levels of work-related stress and anxiety are already high – and the CIPD is now warning that unless employers take action, the COVID-19 crisis could cause this to spiral.

Mental health brain

Staff on the frontline and in key worker roles are working longer and harder than ever, under unprecedented levels of pressure. Those who are helping their companies keep the wheels turning remotely are often being faced with new working practices, unfamiliar technology and the disappearance of daily interaction with colleagues.

It’s a pressure-cooker situation, but in the CIPD’s recent poll, only a quarter of HR professionals believed managers were able to spot the early signs of mental ill health – with around a third also doubting managers were confident enough to have sensitive discussions and signpost staff to sources of help.

So, what can HR do to look after employee mental health and ensure managers are better equipped to support their teams?

1. Encourage managers to ramp up communication

When people are working remotely it’s more important than ever to keep the lines of communication open. Daily team catch-ups are a great way to check in on how people are feeling, to discuss how to overcome challenges and to celebrate successes. Managers may feel this is overkill if they are used to less frequent team meetings, but if people are working (and indeed in some cases, living) in isolation, it can really help to keep people upbeat and engaged and to generate a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’.

Encourage managers to consider alternating the time of check-ins if needed, so that those who are also home-schooling children or caring for relatives can take part. Employees working on the frontline may not have time for frequent check-ins, but it’s really important that their manager keeps in touch regularly, so that they feel supported and know their efforts are appreciated.

2. Help managers spot the signs of employee mental health issues

Make sure managers know the signs of stress, anxiety or depression so that they can pick up on them early and take appropriate action. It is undoubtedly harder to identify someone who is struggling when you are not seeing them face to face. But it is still possible to pick up on body language, behavior changes and subtle signals in the virtual environment (especially when using video calls).

Someone may be more irritable than usual, for example, or less inclined to help colleagues out. A normally ebullient member of the team may be unusually quiet (or the opposite). Or perhaps an employee who is normally very confident and able to get on with things is needing more attention and reassurance. If managers are able to spot the signs, they can support by providing a listening ear, adjusting work or targets if appropriate, or by signposting team members to sources of professional support.

3. Support managers with having sensitive discussions

Managers can struggle with difficult conversations at the best of times. In the current scenario, where anxiety is heightened and the world feels a bit upside down, they may feel even more out of their depth. HR needs to emphasise to managers the importance of not brushing issues under the carpet or ignoring employees who are struggling in the hope it will sort itself out.

Training in managing difficult conversations will be a great help at this time. If budgets don’t allow for an external provider, practitioners could consider running some informal, virtual sessions themselves, or at the very least, pointing managers in the direction of useful resources on this topic. It’s important to recognise that managers themselves may be suffering from stress and anxiety and may need support from HR on a personal level.

4. Encourage flexibility and empathy

Now is not the time for managers to be pressuring their staff with unachievable targets, rigid rules or unrealistic expectations. Those working from home may be juggling work with home schooling or caring responsibilities. Others could be working in far from ideal situations, cramped in a small space with partners or other family members who are also competing for space and bandwidth.

Managers who are operating in high performance organisations or who are used to a highly responsive team may find it hard to adjust their approach. HR needs to stress that in the current environment, carrying on exactly as normal isn’t an option for many employees. Managers need to be encouraged to show empathy for team members who are doing their best in difficult circumstances, to take an individual approach and to be highly flexible when it comes to working hours and arrangements. Those who can show compassion during these difficult times will reap the rewards in terms of increased engagement and loyalty when things return to normal.

5. Provide useful resources

There is a wealth of useful, often free resources out there designed to help people reduce stress, manage anxiety and take care of their mental health. There are on-line mindfulness sessions, for example, virtual yoga classes and advice galore on healthy cooking and eating. The problem is that people’s inboxes are currently being flooded with offers and suggestions, and it can be difficult to work out what is credible, useful and worth investing time in.

HR can help to cut out the noise by curating useful content. A regular weekly email, for example, with just a few suggestions for helpful reading or activities, can be really useful. Or make use of your HR portal on your people management software. Organisations who have an EAP or health provider may find these suppliers are already offering useful online content or sessions, which employees can be signposted to.

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.