As restrictions continue to be relaxed, and workers in WA especially are being encouraged to return to work, there is positive sentiment spreading in the community. However, not everyone is feeling the wave of optimism and mental health professionals are predicting the increase in mental health issues to continue for some time with the long-term impacts of Covid-19.

In March, Lifeline answered almost 90,000 calls from those in distress, an increase of 25% compared with a year earlier, while BeyondBlue has reported a 40% rise in the number of people using their services, and sadly the rates of suicide are predicted to rise significantly in the wake of Covid-19.

Even those who have sustained employment are dealing with heightened feelings of uncertainty, concerns for loved ones, financial pressures and the challenge of changes to their work and home life.

What can employers do to support mental health in the workplace?

Understanding Uncertainty

Check in with your team regularly to assess how individuals are coping, and provide practical assistance where possible. In these conversations, it’s important to remain open and non-judgemental. It’s not difficult to understand the various factors impacting people during this pandemic, however do remember that everyone will respond to these situations in different ways. There may be unique personal situations that factor into their ability to cope with uncertainty and change, and being open and willing to listen can make a huge difference to how employees feel about being at work.

Providing Strong Leadership

People look for strong leadership in times of uncertainty. In the workplace it’s no different, and leaders that can give clear direction, be informative, open and honest about their own struggles, while presenting a positive outlook, can support their team to more effectively face challenges.

To get the most from your team right now, it is important for managers to give direction on tasks and projects, communicating how these are important to achieve business objectives, while being realistic when setting expectations on work outcomes.

Connecting your team

It’s critically important to establish hygiene practices and enforce social distancing requirements to ensure a safe workplace, however keep in mind this will feel very strange for those who may be looking forward to returning to the workplace, and engaging with work colleagues.

Get creative about how you can connect your team, while maintaining distancing, through encouraging chat platforms for quick questions, holding meetings in outdoor spaces if necessary, coordinating break times for people to connect. Some workplaces have been connecting remote and onsite teams by having simple, achievable weekly challenges that everyone can participate in such as baking competitions, dressing up to a theme, or sharing a daily joke, to give some examples.

Healthy Habits

While working at home in isolation, many daily habits that previously had provided an anchor for the work day may have dropped away, and potentially some unhelpful habits were formed! Returning to work now can provide some structure to the day, but may be challenging for some people who’ve been working from home.

Encourage employees who may need to still work from home at times to find healthy ways to transition from home to work and back again. Creating habits or rituals to distinguish between work time and family/home time can help. For example, going to the café for take away coffee before work, showering and self-care at the end of the work day before starting to cook dinner, listening to music or a podcast, or even dressing for work and then walking around the block and walking back in to your home office. Share with your team the daily habits and practices that have been working for you, and have your team share their strategies with each other.

Provide resources

The Federal Government has acknowledged the mental health impacts of the pandemic measures by announcing a $74 million mental health package that will expand telehealth services and fund crisis hotlines. If you’re noticing someone in your team struggling with mental health, there are many resources available to share with your employees which we’ve listed here.

What if an employee is not performing and their mental health is a factor?

It’s important to remember that the pandemic hasn’t released employers from their responsibilities under the Fair Work Act when it comes to managing an employee’s performance or terminating their employment. Take a breath, consider all relevant factors, and don’t rush into decisions. It’s critical that any mental health issues and performance issues are dealt with separately, and that a proper process is followed to ensure fairness. Avoid using Covid-19 as a convenient excuse – new figures from the Fair Work Commission show there were 65% more cases lodged in the last period compared to the same time last year – and employers are still at risk of unfair dismissal claims.

Additional Support

If you’re looking for support for you or your team to effectively manage the changes required in your workplace, get in touch with our team for specialist HR advice and strategies.

If you’re interested in hearing more from our team, register for our next webinar on the 29th May at 11am where we will be discussing HR Strategies and Guidance for Planning After Covid-19.