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Article by Ama Afrifa-Tchie, Head of People, Wellbeing and Equity at Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England.

For some, the changes brought about by the pandemic have led to positive lifestyle changes – less time commuting has meant more time spent with loved ones or pursuing leisure activities and self-care.

However, as we emerge from the pandemic and begin to understand its long terms effects, it is clear that it has exacerbated inequalities already deeply embedded in our society and created social, economic and health insecurities which will be felt by society for years to come.

As many organisations establish new ways of working, we have an opportunity to evaluate how inclusive we really are and make meaningful changes that will benefit not only employee wellbeing, but wellbeing in society as a whole. When you consider that most adults spent at least a third of their time at work, it seems only right that we start here to change how society deals with mental health and inclusivity, now and in the future.  

Understand and celebrate intersectionality

A one size fits all approach to inclusion and diversity is never going to work. As our chair, Adah Parris said of My Whole Self Day, “My whole self is a beautiful mix of contradictions. I am intersectional.” As we emerge from the pandemic, it has never been more important to celebrate these intersectionalities – multiple protected characteristics which, when placed together, can compound discrimination and inequality. Awareness of these dynamics is essential for developing empowerment strategies and building inclusive and equitable workplaces.

As the way we work has changed over the last two years, it is vital that workplaces, whether virtual or in person, help create environments where people have the safety and freedom to choose which parts of their identity they want to share at work, without fear of judgement.  In 2022, we shouldn’t feel like we must leave parts of our identity behind – be that our cultural or ethnic background, gender identity, sexuality, disability or health. Bringing together diversity and inclusion with health and wellbeing will drive a positive transformation in workplace mental health and performance.

Ensure flexible working is inclusive

Whilst many of us have celebrated the benefits of remote working and have revelled in stories of young children pottering into view, cats tapping across the keyboard and partners making lunch in the background, we often forget about those who have been left behind as a result of the increase in flexible working. Those people for whom the latest technology is prohibitively expensive meaning they can’t access remote meetings, those who live in areas where high speed internet connection is not a given, and those who must choose between paying for heating or line rental. It is vital that this technology gap does not widen further and that we bring everyone with us as we move into this new way of working.

Let’s not also forget those who don’t have the luxury of open spaces at home to carve out working areas solely for work, or those who must share their livings spaces with others.

As well as this, we know that women have been hit hardest by the blurring of lines between home and work life. In a study commissioned by us to mark My Whole Self Day, we found that over double the number of women to men said confidence at work had decreased due to the pandemic (68% vs 31%) and almost double the number of women to men said their ability to switch off from work had got worse (65% vs 35%). The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that younger women aged 25-34 and working mothers have been hit the hardest by the economic impact of COVID-19, with working mothers nearly 50% more likely than working fathers to have lost their job or quit. These are stark and worrying figures however, they are just a small part of the overall picture of inequality in the workplace.

We also need to remember that Black People and People of the Global majority re-entering the workplace/office also have revert back to ‘covering’ behaviour – where they actively obscure or tone down their thoughts, opinions and feelings in an effort to ‘fit in’ – when working remotely enabled them to be themselves in the comfort of their own homes and safe spaces.

As we start to transition out of the pandemic and think about how workplace policies and guidelines might change, employers must consider how they will continue to support and protect the mental health and wellbeing of their whole workforce and act to prevent a worsening of the equality gap, whether it pertains to gender, ethnicity, neurodiversity, disability, etc.

Empower staff to talk about mental wellbeing

As we emerge from Covid-19, we face a mental health crisis with more people than ever needing mental wellbeing support.  The Centre for Mental Health estimates that 10 million people may need mental health support as a result of the pandemic. At the same time, the Royal College of Psychiatry has noted the rising waiting lists for mental health services, with demand outstripping provision even before the pandemic. Whilst not the solution, employers can help combat this crisis by implementing visible support systems and practices to empower their staff to seek help when needed.

We know that many people are nervous or feel ill equipped to start conversations about mental health, but it can be as easy as scheduling regular wellbeing catch-ups with colleagues and empowering staff to ask the right questions and know where to sign post those in need.

Our My Whole Self MOT is a simple, free tool to help employees check in on their own and others’ mental health and wellbeing and can be used in conjunction with our new Talking tips toolkit, which can help you approach conversations about mental wellbeing.

Be an actively listening workplace

Now is not the time to implement rigid, new working practices, no matter how supportive you think they may appear. The next three, six and nine months will no doubt see further challenges and changes to our working life as we navigate not only the end of Covid restrictions but also the increase in cost of living and the resulting fall out. As employers, we must listen with empathy, non-judgementally and diligently to what our employees are telling us and be prepared to bend and mould to the resulting needs of our people.

There is no one size fits all solution for mental health and wellbeing. Organisations will need to constantly adapt their strategy, so it is reflective of the nature of their workforce and business, in order to maintain an inclusive workplace culture. However, if employers can better understand the diversity of their workforce and tailor their employee wellbeing strategies accordingly, then everyone can feel safe, confident and able to speak up and contribute to their workplace.

For more advice on how to create an inclusive workplace culture and support employees with their mental health and wellbeing, visit https://mhfaengland.org/my-whole-self/

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