The UK is facing a mental health recession. For both employees and their employers, it’s certainly cause for concern.

Between skyrocketing burnout rates, changing attitudes to work-life balance, and financial uncertainty rippling through the workforce, it’s no wonder both wellbeing and engagement are taking a hit. For HR in particular, the growing mental health crisis is now presenting several difficult challenges to overcome in what the Financial Times is calling a ‘deepening mental health recession’.

supporting employees mental health

Why are employees struggling?

It’s perhaps no surprise that workers are facing new anxieties when it comes to job security and financial stability.

The current economic outlook remains uncertain at best, with unemployment rates having begun to creep upwards as the number of job vacancies seem to be falling. In fact, with almost three quarters of managers reporting that their employees are concerned about job losses amid the current cost-of-living crisis, it would appear uncertainty surrounding the economy is hitting hard for much of the workforce.

Even for those who have managed to hang onto their jobs, the pressure hasn’t lifted. Instead, businesses are being confronted with more negative workforce trends such as resenteeism and ‘quiet quitting’, as staff choose to stay in their roles for fear of not being able to find a safer or more satisfying alternative – however unengaged they may be.

The end result of all this is a workforce now battling record rates of burnout and falling levels of engagement, with little to no hope of quick relief. So, what can HR do to try and turn things around?

How HR can support employees’ mental wellbeing

Amongst HR’s growing remit is, of course, supporting positive employee engagement and wellbeing. But, as staff burnout and ill mental health become more prevalent, it’s now HR’s challenge – and priority – to both re-engage struggling employees and prevent existing mental health concerns from developing further.

However, before an effective long-term wellbeing strategy can be implemented to tackle burnout and poor levels of engagement, it’s essential to first get to grips with what it means for your workforce.

With that in mind, here are four things HR need to know about supporting employees through the current mental health recession.

1. The signs can be subtle

Even as a seasoned HR professional, you’re unlikely to see all that’s going on beneath the surface for most employees – a fact that’s only exacerbated if your face-to-face interactions with employees are limited due to hybrid or remote working.

Even so, it’s important to recognise the signs that an employee may be struggling, and to ensure your line managers are well equipped to do the same. Mental health charity Mind suggests that some of the key signs to look out for include:

  • Changes in how an employee interacts with colleagues
  • Significant changes in work output, motivation, or focus
  • Difficulty or frustration when making decisions
  • Appearing tired, anxious, or withdrawn
  • Losing interest in tasks they previously enjoyed

Of course, not all employees will show outward signs that they’re struggling – making it all the more important that mental health support and resources are made readily available and easy for individuals to access independently.

Consider creating a digital space for mental health resources, such as a workspace in your HR system, that employees can access in their own time. This could include any specialist sites or tools and, if you have one, details on who your organisation’s mental health first aider is, should they be needed.

Most importantly, though, HR should be prepared to ask directly if concerns have arisen about an employee’s wellbeing. Mind’s guide for employers offers valuable advice on approaching these conversations, making suitable accommodations, and encouraging staff to seek further support if necessary.

2. Your company culture matters

Making sure your employee’s workplace isn’t exacerbating – or worse, causing – ill mental wellbeing should be high on HR’s agenda. After all, a toxic workplace will only make day-to-day matters miserable for its victims, and potentially lead to irrevocable damage to employee engagement, retention, and company loyalty long-term.

HR can take the lead in battling toxicity by treating all reported concerns seriously, implementing thorough diversity and inclusion policies, and keeping a close eye on repeat and/or unexplained absences.

When it comes to building a culture that supports wellbeing, it’s also important not to underestimate the value of connection between employees. For example, are your hybrid or remote employees offered sufficient opportunity for communication, collaboration and casual conversation with their co-workers? If not, they could be losing out on the vital inter-personal connections we all need to sustain positive mental health.

As last year’s Mental Health Awareness week highlighted, loneliness can take its toll on remote workers, and in the newly hybrid working world, HR should be more focused than ever on building positive employee connections to combat isolation – particularly when it comes to your off-site workers.

3. The experience will be different for everybody

A recent study by Indeed revealed that, although burnout rates are high across the board, Generation Z is feeling the pressure the most. As the generation most likely to be taking up entry and junior-level roles amid the current cost-of-living crisis, it’s perhaps no surprise that a huge 78% of Gen Z employees have been struggling with burnout.

If you’re looking to support the youngest members of your team, it’s a good time to get acquainted with Gen Z’s changing workplace priorities. To get you started, here are a few of the most important.

What’s more, according to the Mental Health Foundation, women are nearly twice as likely to experience mental health issues than their male colleagues – and with minority groups all the more likely to struggle in an economic downturn, it’s crucial HR get ahead and keep D&I strategies from slipping in times of uncertainty.

4. Small steps can make a big difference

Finally, in a climate where burnout has rapidly spread across the workforce, it’s important to know that every little helps. Perhaps you don’t have the budget to offer direct financial support through the cost-of-living crisis, or the bandwidth to overhaul your organisation’s entire wellbeing strategy. So, what can be done instead?

Seemingly small practices and acts of kindness  – particularly when it comes to the ways in which HR and business leaders engage and communicate with the workforce – can alleviate some of the pressure on employees’ shoulders.

Some questions to consider when it comes to your company culture and communications could be:

  • Are managers encouraging employees to ‘switch off’ and disconnect after their working hours, or are emails being sent long after the working day is done?
  • Are business leaders making an effort to share positive news and outcomes as they arise, rather than just the negatives?
  • Do you have the means to share or highlight free mental health resources? (Mind offer some useful advice on mental wellbeing at work, for example, and the Mental Health Foundation have tools for employees, line managers, and senior leaders alike)

Those small acts to encourage better work-life balance can make a sizable difference to employee mental health, and can help make it clear to your workforce that you value their wellbeing throughout difficult periods.

Chloe Turner author image

Chloe Turner

Graduating from the University of South Wales, Chloe is an experienced content marketing manager who's worked across the HR and legal business sectors.

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