The global COVID-19 crisis has completely changed our lives, impacting our daily routines, the way in which we connect with people, our livelihoods and much more, which can lead to feelings of insecurity and uncertainty.
As restrictions have been relaxed in several countries, business professionals may have been required to return to the workplace or are expected to in the near future, which could enhance these worries even further.
So today, we’re joined by Emma Mamo, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at the UK mental health charity, Mind, to help those who are worried about returning to the workplace, manage their anxieties and maintain good mental health.
1. It would be great if you could introduce yourself to our listeners.
Sure, so as you said, I’m the Head of Workplace Wellbeing at Mind. I oversee all of our programs that work with employers and other partners around mental health in the workplace:
- How can employers keep their people well?
- How can they identify what might be driving poor mental health amongst their staff?
- How they can support people if they are struggling?
I have been leading Mind’s COVID-19 response as it relates to workplaces and the UK workforce, and obviously also supporting my team to transition to remote working. So, hopefully I can bring some of that into what I’ve been experiencing and how I’ve been supporting my team as well as advising employers.
2. Could you define what we mean by the term mental health?
Well, we all have mental health, the same as we have physical health. It exists on a spectrum and we move up and down it from good to poor for any number of reasons.
Good mental health is generally being able to think, feel, and react in the ways that you need and want to live your life. The World Health Organisation also defines it as a state of wellbeing where you’re able to realise your own potential, cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively, contribute to your community and so on.
I think for a long time, mental health was not a neutral term, it was immediately associated with poor mental health. And of course there can be times when we can all experience a period of poor mental health, and it might be around the ways that you’re thinking, feeling or reacting become difficult or hard to cope with. We know that mental problems will infect one in four of us in any given year and they do range from common problems, such as depression, anxiety to rarer problems such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
But I guess it’s about that spectrum, you could be experiencing poor mental health linked to emotional distress, linked to a life event. It could be around workplace pressures, or it could be a condition that you’ve been diagnosed with. So, it’s a broad range of experiences.
3. With many countries across the globe having implemented lockdown measures, those who were able to have been forced to work from home for an extended period of time. How do you think this has impacted people’s mental health?
This outbreak cuts across all areas of wellbeing. It’s impacting on people’s physical health, their mental health, social wellbeing and financial wellbeing. For individuals we’ve all been in the same storm, but not necessarily the same boat. We’ve all had very different experiences based on our life circumstances and so on, so I think it will be impacting on individuals in different and probably multiple ways. It’s been a roller coaster of emotions for myself, I can definitely see that in myself and I’m sure more broadly for people.
In terms of the impact on mental health, it’s around the health anxiety of the pandemic, it’s the uncertainty we’re all facing both on an individual level, but also right up to what this will mean for the economy. The isolation from social distancing, the fact that it’s probably limiting our access to the things that keep us well, and then of course, experience of bereavement, loss and trauma if you’re working on the front line and having to deal with this every day.
But thinking about the key issues that people working from home are probably grappling with in addition to those broader things, for me, it’s about being always on. We’ve always been concerned about agile working, flexible working, acknowledging that it’s a real paradox. It gives people the opportunity to balance home and work life, but it can also mean that the working day is extended and really bleeds over into your personal life. And if everybody’s working from home, the pace we’ve all had to work, the way we’ve had to mobilise and adapt overnight, will definitely be feeding into that. And there’s been research by the Mental Health Foundation and Institute of Employment Studies that have shown that people are working 28 hours of overtime across a month at the moment.
And the next point for me that I’ve been worried about, in terms of people working from home is around system overload. So you’ve now got Outlook, you might be on Teams, you might be on Zoom, you might be on any number of platforms and then you feel a real pressure cooker in terms of responding to incoming work, information and communication. So, that whole picture around system overload is definitely something that I’ve been trying to manage within my team and having rules and frameworks about what we use which platform for.
And then linked to that is just around burnout and I think this is especially a concern for working parents who’ve had to juggle their job, childcare and homeschooling. And then of course around isolation, we’ve lost the social side of work, accessing support from your manager more easily, just that kind of peer support from your colleagues if you’re all in the same place. So, those are the things that I’ve been mindful of in terms of how we support both individuals working from home, but also the management teams overseeing them.
4. And as lockdown, measures are starting to be gradually lifted. What do you think are some of the common worries or anxieties about returning to the workplace and what are the causes of those if you’re able to elaborate?
It’s not a simple reversal. When we went into lockdown, we didn’t really know the scale of how serious this was and now we know how many people we’ve lost through this. So, I think now reversing out of it is not as simple as going into it, even though that was hugely challenging for everybody. And the public are really polarised on easing out of lockdown and the impact of isolation. So, some people have potentially gone through an anti-socialisation and do not want to mix with people because of the fear of transmission, the fear of a second wave, but then equally people have really struggled with isolation and are keen for some social connection. They want to see their friends, family, colleagues, and so on. So, there is a real polarity and feeling.
I think there’s an ongoing uncertainty. We might need to plan for potential returns to lockdown if there is a second wave and so on, and I think the accountability for people’s personal safety has shifted from government to now employers and other people. And it’s not about the choices you make, it’s about the choices that your colleagues might be making, whether your workplace is going to be COVID secure or your commute into the workplace. So, there’s a real lack of control around your own health if you are now leaving a place of safety, i.e. your home. So, that’s some broad feelings and concerns that I’m sure people are feeling.
I guess, some specific concerns around people who are working from home. If people have been working during this time, they may be experiencing burnout and fatigue, so having to manage where their mindset might be around work. They may however, have been enjoying some perks around working from home and a higher level of autonomy, so they might be resistant to that loss of autonomy.
I guess for people who have been furloughed, they’ve been in a holding pattern. They’ve been furloughed and now it’s coming back into the workplace, it might be thinking through is my job safe? So, it’s a real transition point and we know transition points for people are key points of concern in terms of what that might mean for people’s mental health, like heightened anxiety around what happens now. And I guess if they’ve not been working, they’ll have a lack of routine, so then having to come back into the workplace and reintegrate, depending if they’ve been off for a long time. And then if they’ve been at the 80% and their employer hasn’t been able to top up their income, they might be grappling with financial concerns. So there’s a lot in there really.
5. For anyone that is having concerns about returning to the office or the place of work, that is something that they need to discuss with the manager. How would you recommend that they approach that conversation?
Well, I would want employers to be proactive themselves in having these conversations with their staff members about what a return to work looks like and taking into account the person’s commute, who else is in their household. They might not be in an at risk group or at higher risk, but there might be people in their household who are, so having a conversation about that.
But I guess advice for individuals, if they are going to have that conversation with their manager, I think it would be helpful to do some preparation beforehand, and this will be different for people depending on how much planning has been carried out by their organisation and how much information has been shared at this point. Thinking through any key concerns that you have and noting those down, identifying the questions that you want to ask or the points that you want to clarify based on the information that’s been given. Then be prepared to state clearly what you want, what you feel comfortable with and then it’s about having the conversation with your manager and seeing how much the organisation can accommodate what you’re asking for.
I guess after that conversation, if perhaps you’re not happy with how it’s been resolved, then looking to resolve that internally with your HR team if you have access to that. That might not be the case in a smaller organisation, it might be the person responsible for wellbeing if it’s about, at that point, not being happy. If you have a disability that meets the definition within the Equality Act, then that can be a form of redress for you or you could put in a formal request for flexible working. There is section 44 within the employment law around unsafe workplaces, I would say at that point it would be good to get some individual advice about your situation. So, either going to the Mind legal line and we can share information on that, or ACAS can help you with your individual circumstances.
6. I think we can all agree that everybody’s experience of lockdown has been unique to them and they’ve experienced it in different ways. Some people might have been living at home with childcare commitments while others may have experienced a change in work patterns and feel disconnected from their organisation or their colleagues. What advice would you give to those people to help them transition back into the workplace from a mental health point of view?
Change is difficult for many of us, we had to all adjust overnight to this way of working and now going back will be another adjustment. As I said, some people may have enjoyed being able to work remotely, it may have given them less of a commute, more time to do the things that they want to do, obviously within the restrictions placed upon us.
So, if people are finding their transition back to the previous way of working, then I would suggest speaking to your manager about that. Could someone do a phased return back to work, like gradually building up your hours in the days that you might be working from home so it’s a bit of a split?
I think it’d be good for people to think through now, what have they actually missed about not being in the office with their colleagues and focusing on some of those positives and thinking about planning some stuff in. If there are things that you’re missing or just making sure that you’re making time for those things when you do transition back, that might be helpful.
Once people are back, re-establishing familiar former routines should help with the adjustment, but I think it might also be a way to reflect on some of the things that we’ve been doing differently during this time to see if we want to keep that stuff going forward. So, it’s not just transitioning back, perhaps it’s transitioning forward.
7. One thing that has become apparent is that we’re all going to be working in a hybrid teams model, moving forward, where some employees are based in the office, other employees are still working remotely and then a mixture of the two, which is obviously more change for a professional. How would you recommend maintaining good mental health when working in the new hybrid world?
As we recommended to people going into working remotely, it was about agreeing the ways of working, the platforms that are going to be used, the rhythm of meetings and so on. So, I think going back into a hybrid way of working, managers should be taking the lead and doing some work within a team to decide how we are going to work in this way. And I think having a shared document of how people are working, so within my team, we have a team profiles document that says whether I’m a morning person, how I like to be approached; if you need something from me, send me an email, other people are like, just come to my desk. I think when moving into a hybrid way of working, it would be good to do some of that work just so everybody understands how each individual within a team is working.
I think that’s something about the broader team approach and I think if it’s going to be hybrid, maybe seeing things as digital-first. So, within Mind, we’re saying now, people might be coming into the office, other people might be working from home and if we need to collaborate, then we will do that via a digital platform, so thinking through those ways of working.
For individuals, I think it’s about establishing a routine for yourself, establishing boundaries around the working days and how you’re going to work in maybe a hybrid or split way.
A tool that we really advocate and have advocated for a number of years is a wellness action plan. It’s based on a tool that someone would develop to manage their mental health with their health professional, but we’ve adapted it for a workplace context and it gets you to have a conversation with your manager about:
- What are the things that keep you well?
- What are some of the things that might negatively impact on your mental health?
- What are some signs for your manager to look out for if you are experiencing poor mental health?
- And then what are some helpful steps for you to take and your manager to take?
So, I think it’d be a really helpful tool for everybody to support working in this different way.
During the pandemic, some of our listeners will have been able to establish a better work-life balance by reducing that commuting time. For example, I’ve replaced my commuting time with exercise like a lot of people have during the pandemic and personally speaking, that’s done wonders for my own mental health. Whereas others won’t have had that experience and might have struggled to adapt depending on what restrictions have been in place, and they may have found themselves overworking, so work-life balance is key to sustaining good mental health.
8. How can our listeners rebuild or maintain that work-life balance once we start returning to the workplace?
I guess it’s thinking through what’s your ideal working day. And you might not always achieve that, but I think it’s always helpful to know the things that keep you well to try as much to have those kinds of healthy habits and working practices built-in. Even if on one day you don’t achieve as much as you’d like, you know, how to get back on track the next day.
So I think with all of this, it’s having a bit of a moment to reflect on those things that keep you well;
- What are the things that matter to you?
- What makes you feel like you are having a good work-life balance?
I mean, for me, it’s always been about having like a Wednesday pick me up. Midweek I’d always have something scheduled in because I thought that’s a big way to not have work overshadowing in the week, as that’s always something that I’ve tried to do. I also set myself a challenge of doing something new each month. I think it can be very individual and I guess it’s just about sitting down, having a think through about what are the things that have kept you well during this time that you want to keep hold of, and then thinking about how much is that within your control to just put in place, how much do you want to share with your manager or how much do you need their support with that? And again, using the wellness action plan to capture that.
As I often reflect on, things change because of external circumstances, but also within ourselves. So, all of this should be a living document, something you’re constantly reviewing and especially as it’s another transition to a new normal, it’s taking the time to think is this working for me.
9. Do you think that all these factors that we’ve discussed today such as isolation and work-life balance, has led to an increased emphasis on mental health in the workplace from both an employee and an employers perspective as well?
I think it’s probably a bit of a mixed bag, but I’ve worked in the area of mental health and employment since 2010. The last couple of years, we’ve seen a lot more employers focusing on staff wellbeing, putting this as part of their core agenda. And I wonder if some of those organisations have potentially fared a bit better during this time because they had those strong foundations to build upon. But from the very outset of the pandemic, the mental health impact of it has been talked about hand in hand with the physical risks. And I think that’s really positive and I think that has been indicative with how attitudes and the conversation about mental health has been changing over recent years. At the time I’ve worked for Mind, it’s really moved out of being such a taboo subject to it being spoken about.
I will say conversations about mental health in the workplace had lagged behind because as an individual, once you say something, you can’t unsay it and equally for employers feeling fearful of opening up the conversation and so on. I think what this is giving us is an opportunity for a bit of a reset. When I talk to employers, they often say; “But that’s how we do things we can’t really change”. Well, this has made us all change and actually thinking about how we go forward. As I said before, some of the things that we might want to do differently and keep hold of, I think this is absolutely an opportunity for a reset.
I think what has happened has definitely brought this into a sharper focus but as I said for some employers, they’ve already been looking at this and maybe it’s about other employers now catching up to that. And then all of us to think through, what we want to create and build back towards? I think we will be in a bit of a holding pattern for some time, probably until the vaccine has been developed, but we can be building back towards what could be a new normal.
And building on that something that I’ve seen myself and I’ve spoken to friends and acquaintances at other companies as well, there’s been a real sense of togetherness amongst employees during the pandemic, as people have been reaching out to one another just to check in and see how each other is. And as a result, there’s been a greater understanding of each of our personal circumstances and tolerance towards one another.
10. How would you recommend that we keep this going and keep taking it forward in, into the new era of work?
I absolutely agree, the first couple of weeks of going into lockdown, there was such a rise of togetherness. You saw it on Twitter, Joe Wicks setting up PE lessons to help out parents and their children who are now out of school, neighbours setting up WhatsApp groups to help each other, the Clap for Carers has been such an amazing thing to see. And I think it’s for all of us individually to hold on to that and show that compassion and empathy to each other and to always think through how can I make things a little bit easier for someone if they’re struggling. So, I think it’s just around an individual responsibility to not lose sight of that.
But again, I think it’s also for managers and employers to kind of set that tone as well. For me, coming into this situation in terms of how I was leading my team, my guiding principles for something that’s unprecedented and unknown for me, it’s always about guiding principles in a situation like that.
So my one was around wellbeing, making that a priority in terms of my team, understanding their individual circumstances, offering people clarity both in terms of priorities, but then also processes and systems. So, really focusing on simplification and giving people good information and having that kind of two-way dialogue. And then the third principle for me was about community. So how can we still keep hold of that social connection while working in a remote way? And we’ve been doing stuff around art competitions, quizzes, there’s a 4pm virtual pub trip on a Friday, alcohol not always necessarily, fancy-dress sometimes is. So, just trying to think about how we can keep that social side of work that would happen just naturally while we were all in the same workplace.
And then for me, the final principle has been about reflection. As I said, we had to mobilise quickly, but how we can build in pause to see what’s working well and what isn’t and seek feedback. So for me, that’s the guiding principles I’ve been leading my team with and would really emphasise that to other managers as we go back to that new era of work as you say.
11. If you had one piece of advice to help our listeners navigate their careers through the current crisis, what would that be?
The best piece of advice I can give people currently is around just regularly checking in with yourself. How am I feeling? Where am I at? Give yourself a score out of one to 10, if that’s helpful. If your scores low and not great, think about what’s helpful for me to do at this point to increase my score, to help me feel a bit better. I mean, for me, if I’m feeling the pressure or struggling, I can definitely have a shorter fuse.
- So, if you’re feeling angry or frustrated, doing something to calm yourself.
- If you’re experiencing a low mood, do something to energise yourself.
- If you’re feeling anxious, write your concerns down and try and identify what you have control over and what some of the things that you might need to accept.
- If you’re worrying or ruminating about something, try and switch your focus through meditation.
- If you’re feeling fatigue, would it be helpful to reach out to friends or actually do you want some time by yourself to recharge, play some music?
So, I think that’s the best piece of advice I can give to people. You know, were feeling under pressure on many different fronts, we’re faced with a lot of uncertainty. I do think social connection and togetherness is such an important part of it, but equally that kind of checking in with yourself, understanding where you’re at and then thinking about what you can do to help yourself if you’re not feeling great, is really helpful.
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Emma Mamo is Head of Workplace Wellbeing at Mind. Emma joined Mind in 2007 and, since 2010, has led Mind’s campaigning for mentally healthy workplaces – playing a pivotal role in thought leadership to position mental health in the workplace as a key priority for employers and Government.
Emma has led culture change through engagement with employers, health and safety professionals, HR audiences and Government on mental health in the workplace and back-to-work support for people with mental health problems. She also supports networks of employers and stakeholders to share best practice and develop business-to-business peer support. Emma has worked in the disability sector since 2005 and previously worked for Mencap, the learning disability charity.