August 27, 2020

Mental Health in the Workplace in the Time of Corona

It will not be a revelation to anyone to state that Covid has not had a positive impact on our collective mental health. Recent events have been upsetting, and so has the greater uncertainty surrounding the virus. In fact, uncertainty as a whole has a way of really nesting itself into our brains. Interestingly, a recent study shows that people prefer bad news to uncertainty, as it at least gives them peace and a break from constantly ruminating over something they can’t make sense of.  

People are naturally resilient, though and so many people are finding new, creative ways to stay healthy and calm. Some have dusted off their old watercolours at the bottom of the drawer and got stuck into painting pictures of kittens from the internet;  some have joined new brilliant online exercise communities for a daily chat and a sweat; and some have developed a bright green thumb – becoming proud new plant parents to spiky, multi-coloured plant babies.

While on a personal level, there’s a lot people can do to take care of their mental health, from relaxing hobbies to therapy, there are certainly factors outside of our individual control that also play a role. That’s where employers come in. While many people are no longer physically in the office, people are still bound by certain rules and social norms set by their employer. Ironically, employers are still creating an atmosphere, a culture, or a ‘vibe’ – but one that’s spread under many roofs, instead of just under one. And while people are feeling more anxious as a whole right now, many organisations are adapting their rules and norms to make sure people can work safely, in a way that works for them – and therefore effectively, too.

In general, employers seem to be increasingly prioritising employees’ mental health, and for good reason. In 2019, Time reported that half of millennials and 75% of Gen-Zer’s had voluntarily or involuntarily left a job due to mental health reasons, according to a 2019 survey of 1,500 U.S. workers by Mind Share Partners, a non-profit that provides mental-health training for corporations. And this trend is likely to be compounded by our current environment of change and uncertainty.

So, how are employers taking action to ensure they’re doing all they can to support their employees’ mental health? Here are some of the behavioural changes that other companies have made to support their employees in this space, as reported in the Harvard Business Review. While these are framed as actions that management can take, I think many of the principles can apply to anyone in an organisation:


  • Being vulnerable, with leaders opening up about their own struggles, cultivating a culture where people feel comfortable talking to each other openly and honestly about how they’re feeling. As an example, Biotech firm Roche Genentech posted videos with leaders sharing their own experiences, with the hashtag ‘Let’s talk’. Some companies have created peer-to-peer mental health support groups as well.

  • Modelling the behaviours that they’d like employees to follow, including setting boundaries and taking breaks – throughout the work day and on holiday.

  • Going beyond the ‘how are you’ in regular check-ins, and listening carefully to the responses, even if they don’t have all of the answers.

  • Being proactively flexible, not looking for a one-size fits all approach. For example, Basecamp CEO Jason Fried recently announced that employees with any type of caretaking responsibilities could set their own schedules, even if that meant working fewer hours.

  • Communicating more than normal is also working for many companies, as they can then ensure workload is spread evenly, that people are ‘in-the-know’ and that they have the resources they need.

Aside from day-to-day-changes, there may be training that can be done, and policies that may need to be reviewed. But in terms of relatively straight-forward behavioural changes, the above are tried and tested, and have worked well for others. Many who are reading this may already see these behaviours playing out day-to-day, but hopefully this can provide some inspiration, or simply a reminder, of small changes employers can make that have the potential to make a big difference to their employees’ mental health – at a time when it’s never been more important.

Right, I’m off to cook my dinner, as cooking is one of my favourite ways to create space and time away from the daily grind. I’m no Nigella, but that won’t stop me from posting my next dish on instagram, for better or for worse. I hope all of you are having some peaceful time to yourself today, and that the recommendations above provide food for thought. Whether you’re in management or not, I believe there are tips and tricks in here that anyone can adopt – I know I will certainly try.