COVID-19 has brought enormous challenges for employers not familiar with navigating an event described by the United Nations as a ‘once-in-a-lifetime pandemic’. It’s also left some sectors decimated and resulted in sadly, the deaths of 27 New Zealanders.

But it’s also brought positives to the surface like a heightened focus on empathy for people as we unite against COVID-19.

We’re also seeing empathy extended through improved mental health support in the workplace. And it’s likely to be a hot topic of conversation, as it should be, over the coming days through Mental Health Awareness Week which encourages people to ‘take the time to korero’.

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so how should leaders start a conversation about mental health with an employee if it’s not already part of their current engagement discussions?

A good starting point is acknowledging that employees are facing huge challenges and uncertainty in as human a way as possible and that the lines between work and personal time are blurring, especially during lockdowns.

Leaders should acknowledge that everyone is doing their best in trying circumstances and that their business understands some people may need greater flexibility than usual due to homeschooling or other personal needs.

The leaders that are standing out are those acknowledging that people’s workdays are no longer linear and creating a safe and supportive culture by saying, “We understand this isn’t normal and we’re all adjusting, changing, and doing what we can. We are here to support you.”

One obvious but easily overlooked aspect of mental health and wellbeing is how we use our mobiles. If we’re constantly having to take calls or respond to texts, on top of meetings and emails during the day and evening, it can quickly become overwhelming.

Some companies have unplugged days or introduced no meeting days but there are also tools to help people switch off from work after hours including phone functionality. Encourage your workers to check their daily screen time and suggest ways in which they can reduce it if it’s becoming excessive.

Try leaving your mobile out of our bedroom, investing in a traditional alarm clock, and switching to focus mode to help separate office from home life.

As we continue to adapt to significant changes in working, our priorities, and an uncertain future, we can help each other by implementing practical and effective support systems and building encouraging workplace cultures.

There are also some great online resources to help individuals with their mental health such as Safe Site, Headspace, Just a Thought, Mentemia, and Melon.

And in a world of Teams and Zoom meetings, consider creating virtual shared and safe spaces where people can ‘drop in’ and ask questions or seek support outside of larger group forums.

time out

Many managers are reporting that annual leave balances are creeping up with borders closed and movement around the country restricted. But it’s important to take leave even if we can’t travel – there are plenty of other things we can do and switching off is essential for good mental health.

And it doesn’t have to be for weeks, encourage workers to take a long weekend, a few hours during the day to go for a run, cook or play with their children. Taking even mini-breaks can refresh the mind, replenish mental resources, and build resilience.

The benefits of supporting employees during challenging times also go beyond mental health resilience. Randstad’s 2021 Employer Brand Research found the way Kiwi companies have supported their workers through COVID is having a positive impact on employee loyalty.

Work-life balance has overtaken salaries and benefits (number one for the past decade) as the most important driver for those looking for roles. I am seeing this daily.

When I am taking on new roles from clients, I'll ask questions such as, “What’s the culture like? What can people expect from working in this business, and working remotely? What’s the flexible working policy?”

This is what people want to know. And those that don’t support flexible working are now at risk of losing the talent war.

Only 2/10 of candidates I am talking to would consider joining a company that doesn’t offer flexibility which demonstrates the huge value people are placing on it as they seek to balance work and life and support their overall wellbeing.

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Mental health challenges can impact everyone, it doesn’t discriminate, so the more leaders become comfortable with talking about it with their workers, the better outcomes there will be.

Or as the Mental Health Awareness Week campaign says, mā te kōrero ka ora, talking can save lives.

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David Hickenbottom