Mental health at work the focus of new White Paper

Firms shared ideas and best practice at round table event we hosted recently. Findings available in our new White Paper

Man looking stressed and depressed with his head in his hands


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With everyone’s mental health challenged this year it’s an issue that’s become a key focus for employers.

But looking after employees’ mental health isn’t just important during the pandemic. Smart firms are investing thought, and often money, into how they avoid problems like anxiety and burnout. Preventative steps keep people happy but also reduce staff absence.

With this in mind our sister site hosted a round table discussion recently focussed on mental health and work. We brought together diversity and recruitment experts from a range of organisations to talk freely in a safe space.

The event began with an introduction from and founder Gillian Nissim, She spoke about our commitment to sharing and promoting best practice in diversity and flexible working. Mental health is a crucial area for employers, she said. We had moved on from the initial crisis management stage of the pandemic, but there were many uncertainties ahead and organisations had to start looking to the longer term with regard to the support they provided and how they encouraged a resilient workforce.

Mental health challenges

Employers spoke about the issues that had been challenging for them with regard to mental health and what they had been doing. Many were doing regular surveys to find out how their employees were feeling since lockdown. These helped them to keep in touch with any changes and how employees are coping.

Some employers had been able to transfer fairly smoothly to home working. Others, for instance those in the hospitality and leisure sector, had had to close and furlough staff. Others in frontline services had seen a big rise in their workloads.

A mental health network co-chair for a financial services company said there was a lot of focus on personal resilience and mental agility. Given all the uncertainty generated by the pandemic they are keen to help people thrive rather than just survive.

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Return to work

Yvette Dooley from the Mental Health and Wellbeing Network spoke of her work with people in education who had been preparing for the return to school with mental health-focused inset days. Safeguarding and mental health were now everyone’s business, she said. She addressed the fact mental health issues can range from anxiety and depression to gambling and addiction. 

Employers said there was a lot of fear about the return to the office, particularly for commuters. There was anxiety about the return to school too and for people who were shielding. Different employees had different issues so it was important to check in with them regularly and to set expectations which took the factors affecting them into account.

One speaker said mental health should be just as big an issue as physical safety and hygiene efforts. Ensuring ongoing budget for mental health was an issue.

Many employers said they had asked staff how they felt about returning to the workplace. This included furloughed staff and those who had been working from home. Childcare and elder care were big issues. One size did not fit all. Regular check-ins and the use of employee assistance programmes were useful.

Mental health coaching and first aiders

Mental health first aiders were popular with some employers. One firm had launched a mental health taskforce, including first aiders. There was some concern about the pressure being put on first aiders and how they could be better supported.

Another employer had moved from first aiders to healthy mind coaching and was rolling that out globally, with up to 50 coaches anticipated for the UK and Ireland.

Others offered educational webinars on anxiety, loneliness and other well being issues. One firm used an app which provided anonymous proactive support with regard to mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy.

External support

Several employers had partnered with external organisations or consultants. One had teamed up with Headspace to offer everything from meditation sessions to support for children and face-to-face mindfulness sessions delivered by a consultant. One organisation worked with a partner which offered two mental health sessions for staff per month which were divided into walking chats and a group session where people shared their experiences.

One firm partnered with a psychologist and offered free one to one therapy to employees as well as group sessions on different mental health issues. Now that these are online the numbers attending have risen from around 75 to up to 250.

Another organisation has also brought in external help on mental well being, offering voluntary sessions. At first workers were divided into groups according to whether they were managers or furloughed or parents, for instance, where people could talk openly about their experiences of lockdown and so that the facilitator could get to know them as individuals.  These allowed them to hear about latent resentments, for instance, between furloughed workers and others.  With their consent, the groups were mixed up and took part in 10 joint sessions where the facilitator could tease out some of the things they had experienced and help others understand their concerns. 

Line managers

Several employers mentioned the importance of emotional intelligence in uncertain times. One employer organised emotional intelligence sessions for managers so they could think more about the intentions and motivations behind people’s actions.  Too often managers measured people by what they do rather than their intentions. It was an eye-opening experience for managers.

Others also spoke about the need for greater emotional intelligence, particularly in fast-paced, high-stress settings where people might not appreciate the demands on individuals from clients and managers might not have the support they need. One company was piloting new tools around emotional intelligence for managers.

Speakers underlined how important line manager training was. Leaders were human beings and mental health issues impact how they manage. Emotional intelligence was at the core of all of this, speakers said. It was important to develop a culture of mental well being, with a framework which included one to one counselling support for mental health first aiders and coaches. Support had to be ongoing, not just a one-off training day.

Engagement and communication

Employers said they put a big emphasis on communication in the early days of the pandemic – on converting to Zoom, on using channels such as Yammer, on informal quizzes and social events. But for some this had died down as people started coming back to the office.

Keeping in regular contact with people, including furloughed workers, and making sure people knew there was someone to help them was vital. Some employers had wellbeing pages on their intranet; others communicated regularly via newsletters.

One company that employed a lot of drivers used to communicate via flyers and other means before Covid. They have focused a lot during Covid on including a representative from all business areas in discussions about mental health and recorded and shared the sessions. They send these to drivers’ personal emails if they didn’t have a work email so they could read them in their breaks with subtitles. 

Another employer said their field engineers were mainly men and were often reluctant to seek mental health support. They sent out a monthly newsletter to which all employees were encouraged to contribute. They created videos celebrating all staff who supported customers, both frontline and behind the scenes. Channels were set up where employees could raise concerns about how they were feeling, for instance, about safety issues linked to going to people’s homes, as well as tips for managing their frustrations. Line managers were expected to check in with people on a weekly basis via email/ intranet/phone calls. Staff were surveyed in order to build a future action plan, with a donation for each survey completed going to mental health charity Mind.

Senior level support

Senior level support was important to change an organisation’s culture. Many firms said senior leaders had invested personally in giving out consistent wellbeing messages and mentoring.

Others spoke about how policies and practices had changed. For instance, one organisation now includes well being as a mandatory part of performance conversations with managers. The managers received training to help people open up so they can spot warning signs and signpost people to help as early as possible. They were looking at workshops on gambling and addiction and held an open family call once a week during lockdown which gave people a chance to talk openly about the family challenges associated with the pandemic.

Thinking positively

Employers heard that it was also important, amid all the anxiety and bad news, to focus on the positive. One financial services manager said it was vital to focus on getting people excited about positive news. Examples included discussing how the workplace can be positively transformed as a result of Covid, of the new skills and jobs that might be created and of best practice around how people can work more effectively from home.

Employers emphasised the need to be adaptable to change. Focussing on mental health helps people proactively protect their well being. The pandemic had brought more open discussions about wellbeing. Senior leaders’ involvement was welcomed. 

Hybrid working was likely to be the future and the positive changes that had come with the pandemic needed to be built upon. The move online meant a lot of things organisations offered before were now more accessible to more people which had an impact on diversity and inclusion.

Key takeaways:

  • – Manage expectations
  • – Develop a well being culture where mental health is everyone’s business
  • – Check in with people regularly
  • – Remember that one size does not fit all and individuals’ experience of Covid varies
  • – Support mental health first aiders so they don’t get overwhelmed
  • – Consider mental health coaching
  • – Get external support from experts to run webinars, one to one sessions, etc
  • – Consider emotional intelligence training for managers
  • – Support for managers needs to be ongoing, not a one-off initiative or workshop
  • – Communicate regularly and reach out to all workers in the most effective way possible
  • – Get senior leadership buy-in so they can regularly repeat consistent message on mental health
  • – Put well being in performance evaluations for managers
  • – Use anonymous data from mental aid coaches, etc, to target support effectively
  • – Create employee-led networks to offer feedback on the efficacy of initiatives
  • – Focus on positive news too.




Pitney Bowes Ltd


Odeon Cinemas Group


FDM Group

Mental Health and Well Being Network

Nockolds Solicitors


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