21 April 2020

Supporting mental health during times of uncertainty

HR experts share their thoughts on how HR teams can support employee mental health during coronavirus uncertainty by encouraging open communication, social connectivity, and more


Maryam Munir

Maryam Munir

Maryam Munir worked as a content marketing writer at Ciphr from 2019 to 2021, specialising in topics related to HR systems, recruitment, payroll software, and learning and development.


Health and wellbeing Leadership and management


HR experts share their thoughts on how HR teams can support employee mental health during coronavirus uncertainty by encouraging open communication, social connectivity, and more

Before a lockdown was imposed in the UK, more than six in 10 adults felt anxious or worried as a result of the coronavirus. Staying indoors, working from home, and being unable to meet friends and loved ones in person is all taking its toll on our mental health and wellbeing. So how can HR teams support employees’ mental health during this time of crisis?

According to a survey by People Management and the CIPD, supporting people’s mental health and wellbeing is the main challenge for nearly 70% of employers. Working from home, combined with social isolation and the added anxiety around coronavirus can lead to burnout, so open communication between managers and employees is crucial.

“We have to try to keep communication going all the time, even when everyone is working remotely, but to make this possible, HR needs to encourage managers to keep communication going as well,” says Gwenan West, Ciphr’s head of HR.

“HR cannot be there for absolutely everybody, so managers need to be the go-to person in between us and employees. We need them to constantly communicate with their team in daily calls or check-ins at the start and end of the day. By doing this, they can pick up on nuances and clues of employees struggling, for example by focusing on whether the tone of their voice has changed on the call, or if they’re a bit snappy.”

Hessie Coleman, founder of HR consultancy Xethe, agrees. “From an HR perspective, it is important to have open communication. Fundamentally, you want to have happy, productive employees, so we should be doing everything that we can to help make that happen.

“At a very low cost, HR can check in with people and ask them how they are doing, how they are getting on. This action doesn’t cost HR anything and shows employees that someone cares and someone is paying attention.”

Communicating openly can have many benefits for employees, says Jazz Sandhu, founder of wellbeing consultancy The Hour. “Employees will be able to build the right mindset, the confidence and have the tools needed to handle moments where they are stressed and anxious.”

Social connectivity at times of remote working – and when social interaction is lacking – is also crucial for improving mental health.

Coleman says: “When you’re in the office, you might get chatting to someone in the kitchen, but that kind of social interaction doesn’t really happen in same way when you’re working from home.

SEDNA – one of the companies we’re working with – have set up a video call every morning which is very much a social meeting to mimic casual informal social interaction. A lot of people working from home are actually happy to have the sense of normality and routine of work at this time.”

By encouraging group chats on Microsoft Teams or Slack, HR can bring people together and give them the social interaction they have been missing out on.

When explaining how social connectivity is being encouraged at Ciphr, West says: “we’re encouraging people to talk to each other on Microsoft Teams and Totem, and our employees who are used to working from home are supporting those that are not.”

West adds: “Online quizzes and group chats (with most of the company), have also brought employees together, giving them a sense of normality during these uncertain times.”

However, it is important for HR to make sure that social connectivity is not exhausting employees.

Leyla Okhai, coach, mediator, and founder of wellbeing consultancy Diverse Minds, says: “we don’t want people to feel forced or under pressure to constantly be online for meetings or catch-ups. There’s a fine balance between connection, doing your work and then being on 24/7 for these online meetings, especially in an organisation where employees are working in different countries and time-zones.”

With stress and anxiety increasing as a result of the coronavirus, HR should also let employees know that support is available through employee assistance programmes (EAPs). One in four employers have increased their spend on EAPs as a result of Covid-19, according to a recent survey by the Reward & Employee Benefits Association (REBA).

Okhai says: “Make sure that people know about the employee assistance programmes and in-house counselling services, so that they know where they can go and who to talk to.”

“Your entire workforce is going through an external factor that is impacting their mental wellbeing. Whatever workforce you have left right now, you need to nurture them now more than ever, if you’re going to have a business to come back to,” adds Sandhu.

A small but significant step HR can take to support positive mental health is making sure everyone is appropriately set up to work from home with the equipment they need.

“Having the right set up can change your mindset,” says West. “Everyone needs to have a demarcation between home and work, and an office space or just a desk can allow people to separate the two – making it easier for them to switch off once work is over.”

With the right set up to work from home, along with open communication, social connectivity, and access to an EAP, HR can support mental health and wellbeing. But, cautions Coleman, “at the end of the day, we just need to keep reassuring people that this isn’t normal working from home and that we just want employees to do their best and do what they can but, most importantly, to just look after themselves.”