How companies can address mental-health concerns in the pandemic

Taking time for casual conversations and stress breaks can add support and help de-stigmatise mental-health challenges.

Mental-health concerns are increasingly becoming top of mind for companies as the pandemic has brought new levels of stress and anxiety to its workforces. 

A Microsoft Work Trend Index report released last September noted one-third of the Asia-Pacific workforce faced increased rates of burnout, with the highest levels in Singapore and India. In that survey, fear of contracting Covid, along with a lack of separation between work and home life were the biggest stressors. 

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, a Mental Health Association survey found nearly 87% of respondents were showing signs of high stress and nearly half the city's workforce was showing signs of anxiety disorder. 

With this in mind, a Wednesday Campaign Connect panel session led by Mind HK board member and former Campaign Asia-Pacific deputy editor Olivia Parker looked at the impact of the pandemic and what companies can do to help employees. 

"I think it's easier to say what ways is has not affected people's mental health. I think the phenomena of a pandemic is just one that's going to grab people's anxieties on every level," noted Mind HK's CEO and clinical psychologist Hannah Reidy. "From a clinical perspective, what I'm noticing in the patients that are coming through the doors of the private practice where I work tend to be at a more significant level of need now. We’re quite overwhelmed with the number of people that have come through the doors recently."

While all levels of the workforce face mental-health challenges, it is most often the responsibility of  managers to help members of their teams with these challenges, which can often add additional layers of stress to their workload. 

Rachel Burton, HR Director for APAC at Facebook, said the company has had to be really cognisant of the extra work its managers might need to put in. 

"Across the board, all our survey data showed that people felt extremely cared for by either the company or by their managers," Burton said. "But that takes a toll when you're going through something yourself, but you're also giving care to others. So we've tried giving managers support with how they navigate all these tools that are there for people in terms of leaves, or managing adjusted performance expectations if someone's struggling a lot, but also helping them figure out how do they look after themselves."


What companies can do 

With this in mind, what can companies do to alleviate mental-health concerns in their workforce?

Casual check-ins: Talking about mental health does not have to be a heavy dialogue or a planned presentation. Managers and colleagues can take it on themselves to just check-in with members of their team. "It doesn't necessarily mean you have to be qualified and really knowledgeable in mental health. But just to know there's been a change in their behavior is something that can be really helpful to just talk to them gently about and check that they're doing okay," Reidy said. 

Talk about your own issues: If you have the courage to discuss your own issues—it could easily be a conduit to help others. And while company leaders might feel more pressure to hide their own challenges, speaking out could be instrumental in changing the organization's outlook on mental health, Reidy added. 

Bring in extra help if needed: Companies that haven't historically had a culture of being open around mental health can also bring in extra mental-health supports, whether that be through employee assistance programs or insurance provisions, Reidy added. 

Ease off performance demands in times of stress: Burton said that at Facebook they recognised employees were facing a huge range of special circumstances when Covid hit and lockdowns were enforced. So to ease off pressure, they suspended their performance rating cycle for a six-month period. 

Ensure employees take leave:  Burton said Facebook noticed employees were not taking leave because they could not spend it as they liked due to restrictions on travel and activities.  But taking the time off was important. In addition to asking employees to remember to take a holiday, Facebook added same-day additional leave for everyone, so all could ensure they stepped back. 

Encourage activity breaks to cut the stress: Little things can make a massive difference, Burton said, pointing to pivoting team meetings to games and arts and crafts exercises, or allowing employees to buy exercise equipment at home. 

Support employees affected by Covid: Those who need to look after family or friends affected by Covid may need to be granted extra time and support to do that. 

Silver linings 

Reidy said while the pandemic has had a net negative toll on mental health, there have been silver linings. The main one is that more employers and employees are talking about it and these casual micro conversations are what is building a more tolerant and understanding society. 

Another is the flexible working schedule, which despite its drawbacks around blurred lines around work-life can really help some fit their lives around their workday a bit more. 

"Being able to allow flex work to be the positive that it could be and should be, will be very important for people's mental health," Reidy said.


More resources for handling anxiety, depression and maintaining your mental health can be found on the Mind HK website.

This story first appeared on Campaign Asia-Pacific.

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