From education to employment

Supporting employee wellbeing during uncertain times

It is no secret that we are currently living in uncertain times – the cost of living is at an all time high, the UK only narrowly avoided a recession, and technology is changing faster than we can keep up. Business leaders are certainly feeling the pressure. But it is not only business leaders that these factors impact – employees are also feeling the pinch. Leaders mustn’t get too caught up in business operations and forget about their most valuable asset: their people. 

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and arguably it has never been more important. FE News spoke to six business leaders about what organisations can and should be doing to support employee wellbeing all year round. 

Into the unknown

We only have to look back half a decade to see how drastically our work lives have changed. Before the COVID pandemic, the majority of the UK workforce worked permanently in the office. In 2024, the opposite is true. With a hybrid model now the norm for almost half of the UK workforce, most employees are able to work remotely at least some of the time.  

Mairead O’Connor, Practice Operations Director at Node4, expresses concern about this trend. “In today’s digital world, I do worry that it’s harder to find human connection, especially within the workplace,” she says. “The default option is to send an email, or a Teams message, or just leave an emoji, but what are we losing by not having a proper conversation? Multiple studies have proven that social interaction lowers rates of depression and anxiety and improves self-esteem. With many teams being distributed today, it’s more important than ever to actively and intentionally create spaces for colleagues to talk.”

The rise of AI is also a cause for concern in many industries. Since ChatGPT came onto the scene at the end of 2022, discussions about how it can transform how we work have been widespread. For some, these changes may be exciting but, for others, they can cause anxiety. 

“With tech leaders and world leaders prophesying everything from major job losses to the total destruction of humanity, it can be difficult to get some real perspective,” recognises Hugh Scantlebury, CEO & Founder of Aqilla

“Stress relating to potential job loss or job insecurity can be the tipping point for many people and cause anguish and anxiety,” he continues. “It’s important to understand the trigger for these feelings and try to formulate a positive response. In this case, it might be a commitment to find out more about AI or learn some new AI skills so that you can benefit from its advantages rather than reacting to it as a threat.”

The uptick of cyber crime is also a cause for concern across many industries, adding extra pressure and stress to workers’ daily grind. With cybercriminals growing in sophistication and no sector safe from their pursuit, the knock-on impact on an employees’ mental health can be huge, and no more so than when an attack actually occurs. 

As Parisa Bazl, Head of User Experience at Commvault, explains, “The business impact of a cyber attack is well-documented and widely discussed. But there is a worrying and often overlooked human element that can have serious personal consequences for those involved, in particular, employees targeted by cybersecurity threat actors and the cybersecurity professionals tasked with mitigating the impact of an attack. Data suggests that nearly two-thirds of cybersecurity incident responders seek out mental health assistance due to the demanding nature of responding to cyber attacks. Whilst another study revealed that one in seven security staff experience trauma symptoms months after an attack, with one in five considering a job change as a result.” 

A shoulder to lean on 

Whilst these are macro changes, and there is nothing much a single business can do to prevent them from developing, there are actions that business leaders can take to support their employees through difficult times. Crucially, during a time when business costs are rising, these don’t have to cost the earth. In fact, Lindsay Gallard, Chief People Officer at Six Degrees, acknowledges that “79 per cent of workers would find their jobs easier if their employer showed more concern over their mental wellbeing.” 

Elaborating on how to show this concern, Gallard recognises that “there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach and so, for us, flexibility is key. This involves communicating and raising awareness widely, engaging our people on a range of topics, offering a variety of support and resources, and providing space within our initiatives and working arrangements to help every individual strike the right balance. At the heart of all of this, though, is communication: encouraging openness, really listening, and creating ways forward together.”

Matt Hillary, CISO at Drata, adds that the most effective step that business leaders can take is to encourage their team to take time off, especially when it comes to addressing issues like burnout: “We must encourage our team members to take time out to truly disconnect from work–turning off all notifications that plague our awareness throughout the workday–when they need to, champion the rights for everyone to have a balanced life, and welcome employees to set work boundaries based on their individual and diverse needs – all without fear of discrimination, fear of missing out, and fear of not pulling their weight.”

These steps will make a huge difference in breaking the taboo around mental health and encourage employees to share openly and seek out help if needed. Shirley Knowles, Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer at Progress, concludes: “By acknowledging Mental Health Awareness Week, we can help reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, provide support to those in need and promote overall mental health and wellbeing in our communities.

“It is essential to prioritise mental health and ensure that all employees, from all walks of life, have access to the resources and support they need to thrive and overcome mental health challenges.”

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