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Improving employee mental health & wellbeing: An OD perspective

The coronavirus pandemic has provided a unique and perhaps long-awaited opportunity for OD practitioners and psychologists.

For many years we have been aware of the issues around workplace stress, poor work-life balance, and the lack of mental health and wellbeing support (both in the workplace and outside). The current situation has brought these issues to the forefront.  

The impact has created what a colleague recently described to me as ‘a perfect storm’. This perfect storm compounds existing issues and symptoms within organisations, such as poor work-life balance (the issue) leading to stress and burnout (the symptoms). 

Some of the causes contributing include:

  • COVID-19 and disruption to daily life and routine – affecting everything from work, school, family life, and relaxation time.
  • Economic uncertainty. With financial and employment worries a growing concern for many people, coupled with shrinking global GDP and a looming recession, the general feeling at the moment can be one of tension in the economy (which in turn is reflected into political and social situations).
  • Health concerns. COVID-19 poses a threat to our health, and for many of us we are concerned for ourselves and our loved ones, particularly those deemed ‘vulnerable’ to the virus.
  • Changes in the business environment. Changes within organisations like redundancies, mergers, and new startups that need a new operating system to perform well.

As a result of these causes, we may see symptoms like:

  • Low productivity or motivation to work. 
  • Mental ill-health states such as anxiety and depression.
  • Lack of self-care (i.e. not eating/sleeping/exercising/socialising enough or properly).
  • Exhaustion and low energy.
  • Stress and burn-out. 
  • Instability that affects culture and morale.

Many of these symptoms link together and tend to exacerbate as a result – much like how the causes operate. On an individual level: someone in the hospitality sector may face the threat of unemployment and health concerns, which don’t allow for much space to be mindful and relaxed, and therefore easy resolution cannot be felt. On an organisational level: changes in staff levels may create disruption, and companies aren’t able to reach their targets. They’re in need of new operating models, cross-functional strategy, change and culture development. Without adequate strategic thought and implementation, the symptoms exacerbate and feed into the causes. 

We need to target this holistically – look at the macro features of the organisation and how it creates fit (or not) for the individuals it employs, particularly now when individuals’ needs may be higher than before, and in managing risk that may be with us for longer than expected. 

With the awareness of how important it is to safeguard and support mental health and wellbeing, the market of training and resilience programmes or wellbeing initiatives has seen a huge surge. While these types of programmes often have great ideas and values behind them, being a standard package means the issues that are specific to your organisation or sector are unlikely to be addressed at the level required for resolution and long term results – it may not be looking at overall strategy and culture, or in-depth at the more prolific issues that are being felt by individuals now. There needs to be engagement and deep consideration of what the businesses, and individuals, really need in order to thrive at work. OD practitioners provide this opportunity for dialogue and to discuss issues closely with organisational stakeholders and employees, allowing people to contribute and support the development of the change they want to see. 

What can OD do to help understand and address these issues?

Practitioners in organisational psychology and development are able to help with diagnosis of root cause issues, as well as supporting with the management of symptoms and finding ways of improving situations through wider-reaching pieces of work, such as culture design and workplace stress. This is because organisational psychology is concerned with human factors and health and safety, and it forms a large part of the work experience of good practitioners. 

Part of the diagnosis work OD practitioners carry out is reviewing the organisation in terms of available resources and current needs. By identifying what kind of support employees need or would benefit most from, practitioners are able to find appropriate programmes and resources to support wellbeing and employee motivation in the workplace. This could be looking at workplace design (from organisational structure through to physical things like spaces and furniture), establishing support networks (using peers, HR, or external professional support), and finding ways to motivate and support employee wellbeing. 

If an organisation is considering work around changing the operating model, improving processes, creating culture, and implementing change, then organisational diagnosis can be a great first step. This overview work, from initial diagnosis right through to long term planning, allows a ‘blueprint’ of the organisation to be constructed, one that shows all the layers of an organisation and its people – and where they can be better supported with OD initiatives and programmes. This ‘blueprint’ is also useful for monitoring change over time, as it allows a practitioner and the business stakeholders to review what there was, what was done, and how that has changed the organisation, as well as allowing for forward planning with areas that need more attention in future. 

Finding a way to implement actions from the organisational health diagnostics, including leveraging internal resources, engaging with external experts, and developing a future-proof plan, ensures that instances like the pandemic can be better managed in future without causing instability within an organisational structure, culture, or mode of operating. OD practitioners ideally work with HR teams or other pastoral support to ensure the rollout and long term sustainability of these programmes and initiatives. By working with internal resources and staff, it can help provide an additional layer of support, as well as ensuring processes are fit for purpose ahead of implementation in the business. 

For a smaller, more concentrated focus on wellbeing and mental health, businesses can look to:

  • Understanding what burnout and workplace stress is.
  • Leverage the skills, policies, and people that might already be in place. This could be your HR team, or learning and development practitioners you employ. There may be people with experience in coaching or counselling who could provide guidance and help.  
  • Review and update any existing policies or initiatives as necessary. Do you already have processes that talk about wellbeing and mental health? Do the processes weigh the burden of responsibility fairly on employees and line managers?
  • Create or engage with wellbeing initiatives. Some available practices that have been used are a ‘mental health day’ once per quarter, subsidised gym memberships, availability of healthy food options, a monthly drop-in session with a licenced therapist, and employee-assistance programs. There are lots of charities are on hand to help businesses and individuals live more mentally healthy lives, such as MindRethink Mental Illness, and Mental Health UK.
  • Mental health first aiders or support champions. These are volunteers from within the workforce who offer themselves as a friendly point of contact for colleagues who might not want to speak to someone more official yet, or just want a listening ear. An on-call or open-door policy could be developed so people have times when they can access the service confidentially. 
  • Businesses could also engage with smart technology such as apps, in addition to other wellbeing initiatives and having health support systems in place. 
  • Build easy items into your day, such as taking regular breaks away from your desk or work area, sticking to a regular routine for work and home, and evaluating your work environment in terms of productivity.

The most important thing is communication. Talk to your employees, your senior leadership team, your stakeholders, and find out what issues they’re experiencing, and if they have any suggestions for resolution. Involving the people who face these challenges daily means they have insight into what could really make a difference to their working environment. 

With World Mental Health Day taking place in October, this is a great opportunity to have these kinds of conversations within your business, and reflect on what you could do. Mind and Rethink Mental Illness have this year used their ‘Time to Change’ campaign to encourage people to Speak Up and Speak Out about worries or struggles – no matter what they’re related to.

Turn your thoughts and ideas into action by engaging with an OD practitioner or psychologist and discover how you can make real, impactful change. Don’t allow a perfect storm of issues, symptoms and external factors to creep up on you – build resilience and long-lasting change within your business or work practices to ensure strength and stability in the future through a bigger focus on risk and wellbeing.

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