Future of Work Insights

Mental health support: what works?

6 minute read time

We speak to corporates to find out what mental health support systems they implemented during the lockdowns and what policies they will be taking forward as we emerge into a brighter, healthier future.

Physical health has been in sharp focus during the pandemic. From looking out for symptoms such as a fever, a new continuous cough, or a loss of taste and smell, through to the development of tests, treatments, and vaccines, physical well-being has been at the forefront of our minds.

Yet mental health has also been discussed in detail. Governments in all four UK nations have highlighted the benefits of exercise and meeting other people for support, loosening restrictions when possible to allow these to happen. 

“It’s important for HR and managers to remember that such support will still be needed as lockdowns ease,” says Toni Reilly at NatWest Mentor. “We know from figures released by the Mental Health Foundation that while anxiety among the population fell from 62% in March 2020 to 42% in February 2021, there was also a fall in the number of people who felt they were coping well with the stress of the pandemic, down from 73% to 64% over the same period.”

The figures also showed a spike in reported levels of loneliness, which rose from 10% to 26%, while feelings of hopelessness stayed at 18%. The Mental Health Foundation said the “complex” picture showed that the impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health would continue for months or even years.

“It’s essential to agree and communicate a well-being plan for employees as they return to pre-pandemic working practices,” says Reilly. “Even if you had one in place before, it will likely need to be changed to reflect an increase in flexible and homeworking. The more your staff have a hand in shaping this plan, the more committed they will be to looking after their own health and, in turn, the well-being of your business.”

Many businesses successfully introduced measures to support their employees’ mental health and well-being during the pandemic. Some of the innovations introduced during the lockdowns were so effective they are being extended to support workers when they begin returning to their offices. Here, we look at how some of the biggest names in British business took steps to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on their employees – and what measures they will be enshrining in company practice permanently. 

Normalising conversations about mental health

Accountancy firm Deloitte launched a raft of initiatives at the start of the pandemic. At the centre of its efforts was the Wellbeing Movement, an online hub that hosts events, classes and drop-in sessions, with the virtual format allowing more people to take part than was possible at previous face-to-face events.

Other measures included a coffee club that paired people to share a drink and a chat over Zoom, which attracted more than 1,500 participants, and a buddies’ network to provide peer support. A £500 allowance for home office equipment helped remove a source of stress for many people, making it easier for them to work from home.

“One of the biggest changes came right at the very beginning,” says Garry Tetley, a tax partner and one of the firm’s mental health champions. “Every single leadership meeting from mid March into May had mental health and well-being as item number one on the agenda.

“That set the tone for the entire firm and sent out the right signals: it normalised conversations about mental health, which is something we’ve been trying to do for the past 10 years. It meant people felt more comfortable speaking with their teams about the challenges they were facing, whether that was loneliness or looking after children who weren’t at school or worrying about sick relatives.”

“Every single leadership meeting from mid March into May had mental health and well-being as item number one on the agenda. That set the tone for the entire firm” Garry Tetley, tax partner and mental health champion, Deloitte

Tetley points to research carried out by Deloitte, which showed that, for every £1 a company spent on supporting its staff’s mental health, it received an average return of £5. “The challenge for all businesses is to maintain that normalisation of speaking about mental health once the pandemic ends,” he adds.

Deloitte’s Wellbeing Movement will continue as the firm mixes office and homeworking, with a wellbeing app also being launched. More mental health champions will be trained beyond the current complement of partners and directors, while Mental Health First Aid training will also expand.

Keeping in touch with each other

Before the pandemic, smoothie maker innocent already offered a wide range of mental health support to its staff. The company, which has about 350 workers at its head office in London and a further 250 or so across Europe and Asia, ran mental health awareness training for all its employees with a consultant and provided an employee assistance programme, giving confidential support around the clock.

“We have the view at Innocent that your mental health is as important as your physical health,” says office and culture specialist Laura Thompson. “Our goal is to make those conversations about mental health and well-being open and honest.”

The company ran mindfulness and yoga clubs, and has an on-site gym to promote physical health as a way of boosting mental health. Thompson also sends ‘mindful moment’ emails each week to help normalise conversations about mental health, including interesting TED Talks, uplifting playlists, and (when relevant) routes for walks around the office at lunchtime.

When employees began working from home during the pandemic, the consultant recorded a 12-week series of videos to help support their well-being, including how to set achievable goals, getting into a routine and maintaining optimism. The mental health awareness training was also taken online and expanded to include guidance on how to spot during video calls if colleagues were struggling.

Innocent has continued to expand its support for staff, including by training more mental health first aiders. “One of the lessons we’ve learned during the pandemic is about the importance of communication,” adds Thompson.

Building resilience to help people cope

The John Lewis Partnership, the employee-owned business that runs the eponymous department store chain and Waitrose supermarkets, introduced My Resilience, an online health check and advice tool. The 15-minute survey was taken by more than 6,000 members of staff, who then received a personalised report about their own resilience and where they could access support, including through the Unmind workplace mental health platform, and through the company’s health services.

John Lewis runs Partner Support, a listening phone service, which received more than 16,000 calls last year. It also operates a network of ‘well-being champions’, which 908 employees volunteered for.

During the pandemic, the company provided nearly 6,000 psychotherapy sessions, with 451 of its managers undergoing mental health awareness training. More than 10,000 members of staff downloaded the Unmind app, with nearly 300 people sharing free access to a friend or family member.

“Undoubtedly Covid-19 has had a massive impact on our personal and work lives, with our resilience well and truly tested,” the company said. “Personal resilience is about being able to cope in the face of adversity, and can be developed through self-awareness and understanding of how we feel and cope with multiple challenges at work and at home.”

By Peter Ranscombe