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Opinion

How can we make workplace mental health a post-pandemic priority?

Cate Sevilla has some suggestions about the future of mental health at work

While burnout, work stress and work-related anxiety have become more talked about in recent years, the events of 2020 compounded – if not accelerated – the conversation around the impact work can have on our mental health. When many of our jobs were brought within the four walls of our home, this sudden integration and juxtaposition drastically shifted the way we thought about our ‘real lives’, and, more specifically, the relationship between our mental health and our work.

Having an imperfect work-life balance or suffering from burnout affects us on a deeply personal level, but it’s important to note that this isn’t just an individual problem – it’s a structural problem, a societal problem, a cultural problem.

The cause of these problems isn’t just down to poor managers or the toxic working environments created by maniacal, Silicon Valley CEOs – it’s an infection that runs throughout the fabric of our society and most western cultures. Fresh perspective on not only where we work, but how we work hopefully indicates that meaningful change is in the air.

So, what might this complex relationship between work and our mental health look like in five, or even 10 years’ time?

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Lead by example

Cultural shifts within a workplace come from the top, so hopefully in the years to come a new emphasis will be put on the emotional intelligence of those we put in charge of others. Creating executive boards and management teams full of people who value empathy, vulnerability and transparency will no doubt take a large amount of time, money and effort – but having leadership figures who actually lead by example when it comes to the mental health of both themselves and their staff is critical.

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We need managers who set and enforce positive boundaries with themselves and their colleagues and normalise prioritising their wellbeing over deadlines and budgets. We need leaders at all levels of a company who acknowledge the importance of life outside of the office and have a healthy perspective on what is actually ‘urgent’ or ‘an emergency’. (Unless you’re working in A&E or law enforcement, really, what is an emergency?) Change doesn’t need to start at the top, but it has to do its part in order for big changes to happen.

Truly flexible working

While working from home in a pandemic (without childcare) is nowhere near ideal or truly reflective of what flexible working could look like, at the very least we now know remote working or more flexible hours are possible, when many of us were previously told the opposite.

Once the extreme nature of ‘WFH in a pandemic’ has calmed down, an innovative and positive form of remote or flexible working should take its place. In five to 10 years, working remotely or with limited days in the office could and should be completely normalised and expected. Obviously some industries may not be able to make this work – but there are so many that can, and the benefits would be tenfold.

For example, without location or accessibility being a hurdle, think of how diverse our workplaces could become. Who could companies hire that they wouldn’t or couldn’t before, because of the geographical and physical nature of their workplaces?

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If leadership teams and managers were trained to manage remote staff and flexible hours properly and sensitively – without there being an impact on career trajectory or inclusion – and if the right technology and in-home equipment were made easily available, the transformation of many people’s mental health would be incredible.

Another huge issue that became even more apparent in 2020 was the importance of affordable and accessible childcare to working parents. But what if creches and nurseries became integrated into offices? And at no extra cost? The ‘mental load’ and stress parents experience trying to pay for childcare and to also physically do the drop-offs and pick-ups in combination with their commutes is too much.

If this massive financial and mental pain point were alleviated, the benefit to working parents’ mental wellbeing – and therefore families as a whole –would be unmeasurable. Without this fundamental change to our working culture and society, the true mental wellbeing of working parents and equality for women in the workplace will never come to fruition.

The normalisation of self-reflection

While the giant structural and organisational changes that could potentially happen are important and necessary, the future of our mental health at work can only shift and change if we’re willing to reflect on our own personal relationship between work and our wellbeing.

In addition to stress and ‘burnout’, there’s also a deeper mental connection that we have to our work. Our identities can be intertwined with our job titles or the company we work for (‘I’m a Googler!’), which can be devastating when we lose the job we so closely align ourselves to.

More positively, our mental health can also be uplifted by the work we do – we can get a deep sense of satisfaction or purpose from our work, and a sense of belonging from our jobs. Therefore, when we do experience stress, examining why, for example, we feel the need to overwork ourselves, or why we find it so hard to put boundaries on our time and not answer emails at midnight is so important.

It’s not enough just to acknowledge an imbalance between our work and home life, it’s understanding why this imbalance has occurred and what we need to do to (or ask for) to rectify it that matters. If every individual were to reassess this and be focused on solutions for what they need to improve the relationship between their mental health and their job, this could have a huge, positive domino effect on the overall future of work.

How To Work Without Losing Your Mind by Cate Sevilla is out now (Penguin, £14.99)

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