In 2021 Organisational Psychologist, Adam Grant, wrote an article for the New York Times about the novel concept of languishing. As Grant went on to describe, languishing encapsulates the feeling of aimlessness and lack of joy. A sense of stagnation was felt globally as the pandemic put our life plans on hold. While we weren’t collectively experiencing a bout depression, or burnout; the term languishing gave a name to our absence of wellbeing, motivation, and diminished focus. Grant outlines that part of the danger of languishing is that you might not even notice it is happening. The steady slip into solitude or reduced productivity at work might not even come to your attention; so how are you able to seek help?
However, for some people, the pandemic has exacerbated existing mental health conditions and given rise to persistent feelings beyond languishing. The constant change in restrictions and lockdowns means we have had to repeatedly adapt the way we work. This has seen an increase in risk factors of mental-ill health such as financial pressure, instability, and fear as well as a decrease in protective factors such as social connection and daily routine. It’s no wonder that workplaces are facing health and safety challenges such as burnout, stress, and increased employee fatigue.
On the other hand, working from home has provided employees with flexibility, the ability to multitask and control their calendar. As such, it seems that not everyone has been impacted equally by the shift from office to home, nor is everyone equally happy about the return to office plans. A 2021 McKinsey & Company report revealed that one-third of respondents felt the return to work would negatively-impact their mental health. Therefore, it seems that employers have a new challenge on their hands; how best do they reintegrate people back to the workplace? As we move into a third year of the pandemic, the gift of hindsight may guide us through what has been a dark tunnel. Whilst we have no control over new Covid variants, border closures, or restrictions, there are strategies that workplaces can implement to create psychologically safe and flexible environments to support employees through the “next normal.”
We have all experienced significant change over the past two years. The first step in creating a healthy post-Covid workplace is recognising and acknowledging this. Whilst you may not have personally experienced any loss, major life change or be vulnerable to illness, any one of your colleagues may be in a different position. Therefore, it is necessary to be compassionate and have a broader understanding of the different circumstances in your team. It is important for workplace leaders to acknowledge everyone’s struggles and create an environment where mental health can be discussed freely without fear of discrimination or judgement. This can be done by addressing the stigma head-on and creating workplace policies that foster healthier mental-health outcomes. If leaders can demonstrate vulnerability and talk about their own struggles, employees may feel more inclined to as well.
Clear communication between team leaders and employees is important for functioning in the return to work. For employers, this means communicating changes in policy or workplace arrangements at the earliest date possible. This creates a sense of control and predictability among employees, the antidote to psychological distress. Additionally, managers should ensure that employees understand the needs and expectations of their role; what can be achieved at home vs. the office? On the other hand, employees should be encouraged to communicate their needs; what support do they need to excel in their role? What does a return-to-work plan look like from their perspective? Whether working from home or in the office, communication between team members should be frequent and clear to the suit evolving needs of each person.
A report collated by Ipsos in 2021 revealed change to work routine, difficulty finding work-life balance and feeling isolated when working from home as some of top work-related challenges. Given that everyone has had a different experience of the pandemic, not everyone has enjoyed working from home. By the same token, not everyone is ecstatic about the return to work. Therefore, businesses should opt for flexibility and allow employees a sense of control over their working arrangements. Along with workplace culture and job security, flexibility was identified in the top three markers of job satisfaction – with 85% of workers opting for a flexible arrangement. Practically, this may look like hybrid working models including working from home and the office. Given that a sense of powerlessness and volatility is associated with increased psychological stress, regaining control over working arrangements may help employees to meet the needs of their own personal circumstances.
Provide Access to Mental Health Training and Resources
Adapting company policies to prevent discrimination of mental health conditions and providing an open channel of communication may lead to psychologically safe workplaces. However, as a society, we have a long way to go before mental-ill health is treated without stigma. As such, some people may not disclose their struggles in a work context. In this case, workplaces can focus on empowering individuals to take care of their mental health by providing access to resources. Upskilling employees with programs such as Aspect Group’s Psychological first aid and mental health training should be a consideration for all businesses. It’s important to recognise the signs that someone may be struggling with mental health concerns and know how to help them. Additionally, workplaces should promote their Employee Assistance Programs and encourage staff to make the most of the service. Employees should be able to access resources related to both preventative (lifestyle-related changes, emotional support) and crisis (Lifeline, Beyond Blue) circumstances, as well understand the process of disclosing mental-ill health to their managers. Providing free access to mental health resources may shift the responsibility of managers to inform employees of the available support all the while empowering individuals to proactively seek any information they need.
Take a Proactive Approach to Workplace Mental Health
Whilst we have no sense of what the next 12 months may hold, the pandemic has undoubtedly changed the way we work and view mental health in the workplace. With the increased recognition of protective factors such as stability, social connection and control, workplaces can use what they’ve learnt over the past two years to create psychologically safe workplace environments. More and more businesses have recognised the need for a proactive approach to mental health that caters to the diverse needs of their employees. As such, employers should focus on fostering the positive impacts of being in the office such a social connection and routine, while nurturing the negative facets of returning to work, like inflexibility.
By creating a flexible work environment that caters to the needs of its staff, workplaces can reap the benefits of a psychologically safe workplace such as reduced absenteeism, increased satisfaction, and increased productivity.