Date: 05/05/20 | Duration: 00:30:01

Before coronavirus struck, mental-ill health was the number one cause of long-term sickness absence among UK workers. Current lockdown restrictions are likely to have exacerbated these conditions for many, and this poses a real challenge for managers who are expected to look after the health and well-being of their teams.

Join Andrea Winfield, HR Director at Microsoft, Professor Neil Greenberg, Professor of Defence Mental Health at Kings College, and Rachel Suff, Senior Employee Relations Adviser at CIPD to learn how managers can have confident and sensitive well-being conversations to support the mental and physical well-being of their remote teams, and crucially what employers need to consider as the UK plans for an eventual return to the workplace.

Nigel Cassidy: Is your work team okay or struggling? Do you have what it takes to look after people’s health and wellbeing so they're able to get the job done? I’m Nigel Cassidy and this is the CIPD podcast.

Well back in the day in PC world, that's pre-coronavirus, people used to say if you’re not in the room you’re not in the know. Well now nobody’s in the room they’re on Zoom and it’s left people managers with a new skills gap. They freely admitted to the CIPD that they lack the confidence and know-how to spot signs of physical and mental ill health in their now far-flung teams.

Well as we speak we’re still in lockdown; most of us are stressed to some degree; there's fear of infection, of isolation, there's fear of redundancy and major financial worries. And all too soon those personal and family worries can tip over into mental health issues. Let’s face it, it could be your organisation’s insensitive or disorganised management which is to blame.

So here with top tips on how to monitor and aid your team’s wellbeing, all joining me online from who knows where, we’ve Andrea Winfield, UK HR Director at Microsoft, hello.

Andrea Winfield: Hiya

NC: Next we have a consultant occupational and forensic psychiatrist, Professor Neil Greenberg, Professor of Defence Mental Health at Kings College who served in the United Kingdom Armed Forces for more than 23 years and also runs the March on Stress Consultancy. Hello.

Neil Greenberg: Hello.

NC: And from the home team Rachel Suff, the CIPD’s Senior Employee Relations Adviser. Rachel’s a qualified HR practitioner with a masters who’s led a range of policy and research studies about health and wellbeing at work. Hello Rachel.

Rachel Suff: Hello.

NC: Now in one sense I suppose, let’s start with you Rachel, this is nothing new, I mean before the pandemic mental ill health was the number one cause of long-term sickness and absence among UK workers so start us off if you will with a sense of the new difficulties that managers are now facing in looking after their people particularly in the face of lockdown.

RS: Well yes exactly we knew mental ill health was a serious issue in workplaces and this pandemic has brought the risk of further psychological unwellness to the fore as well as the physical risk. I think for a start the situation is very uncertain. There's a lot of fear and anxiety and that's very uncomfortable I think for a lot of people, and also I think a lot of people are in very challenging personal situations, perhaps if they’re caring for somebody who’s vulnerable, as well as fears of their own around the pandemic, but also if they’re juggling childcare at a time when they’re working. Some people have been furloughed, some people have lost their income or a partner has, so there's worries about financial wellbeing, even bereavement in some situations. So all those pressures that people would feel before the pandemic have been exacerbated now. I don’t think there's anybody that isn't having some kind of challenging experience.

NC: Andrea in the face of all this, I mean I guess we can take it as a given that Microsoft has the technology to facilitate its workers at home, but what have been your people priorities since the lockdown?

AW: Well I think these circumstances have completely changed people priorities. I guess there are some things that just become more important than ever and will stay the same, so taking a values-led approach to how we take care of our employees is just super important and people management and leadership has just never been more critical. 

At Microsoft we’ve taken a family-oriented approach to this, so we know that the number one priority for all of our employees is to put themselves and their family and their health first and so everything that we’ve doing is trying to put that at the centre and at the start of the list of the things that we’re concentrating on and working towards. 

As you say, we’ve always mobilised our employees to be able to work virtually and in a mobile cloud-first world but working from home permanently under the circumstances that we find ourselves in where people aren’t just working from home, I think it’s quite difficult these days to decide whether or not you’re working from home or sleeping from the office and so preparing people for successful homeworking is a real priority for us.

NC: But you do a lot of practical stuff don't you with access to counsellors, GPs, sending round chairs and workstations, that's obviously because you’re a large organisation but all this kind of stuff’s a lot harder if you don't have the resources that you have.

AW: Well you’re right we do have deep pockets and that has enabled us to be able to courier people’s monitors and chairs to their home addresses. But part of this is also just being able to give very practical advice to people. It doesn’t cost anything to be able to give people tips on how to maintain their wellbeing or tips for how to take care of your mental health, to guide and coach managers on checking in on their teams, to hold and honour commitment to keep staying in touch. All of these things are free, don't cost money, but it’s about where you focus leadership attention I think.

NC: Okay so Neil Greenberg there's clearly a kind of gold standard of best practice here, we’ve heard some of the ideas already, but there is a messy reality for people about the day-to-day isn't there? It has a lot to do with employers who may be a bit negative or just plain disorganised just dumping work on people, I just wonder what sort of things you've observed since we all started hunkering down, and those of us who can, still working from home?

NG: I think from my point of view as an evidence-based scientist but also a psychiatrist what I've noticed is that a lot of organisations seem to place a heavy reliance on psychological counsellors or therapists as being available in the background to support staff and clearly for an important minority that's really important. But I think just as Andrea said actually all the evidence that we have from our studies of organisations shows that the most important thing that organisations can do is to make sure that junior supervisors, so the junior managers, really are able to both understand what the impact of the current situation is on their staff, take account of that and then most importantly they need to have the confidence to have what we call a psychologically savvy, supportive conversation. 

So we know that actually good managers tend to be good managers from a mental health viewpoint because they’re able to get someone to open up just a little bit about what is really going on with them and in most ordinary workplace conversations a manager might say, ‘How are you doing?’ and the person says, ‘Oh I'm fine,’ and then the assumption is that they’re okay, when of course fine can mean absolutely anything and it isn't really a mental health check. 

So we've been placing a lot of emphasis, particularly in the healthcare sector, but also other organisations we’re supporting, in trying to make sure that those junior managers who don't really feel confident in talking about mental health, actually can have those supportive conversations, because once you do that all the evidence is that it has a dramatically positive, protective effect on staff’s mental health.

NC: So Rachel Suff it’s quite difficult isn't it to see these small cues and hints perhaps that something isn't right and quite hard to identify just in a work video meeting?

RS: Yes it can be and I think what Neil said is so important because we know at the CIPD from our research that line managers are dealing with a lot of expectation on them, and this was before the pandemic, to look after people’s health and wellbeing and they will be the first port of call very often if people are worried, but also people might not feel able to talk about their health if they’re not feeling very good and seek that help. And without that face-to-face interaction where you can pick up on facial expressions, body language and so on it can be even more difficult. So really important that the people profession support line managers. 

And yes it’s about having that one-to-one conversation. But I think if line managers feel able to open up themselves about how they feel, show a little bit of vulnerability, then I think that can help as well. So I think this kind of interaction in terms of video conferencing is important, but also a phone call. I think because we are seeing a lot of video interaction some people can feel a bit overwhelmed by that as well. So I think it’s just being about to have that really empathetic conversation, build up the trust with your team and have regular catch ups where you ask open questions to feel your way into that conversation in terms of how they’re feeling.

AW: Yeah absolutely I couldn’t agree more. And we’ve been doing a lot with managers to really help them with those dialogues by starting every one-to-one or every team meeting with the question, what am I feeling? Asking people to name those feelings in one or two words, asking people the question, what’s distracting you right now? And I think it’s really important for us to help our line managers set an expectation that it’s perfectly normal and really expected that most things are going to be harder in times of crisis and uncertainty again a false belief that we can do the work that we were doing previously. So part of it is about setting the scene, having those check ins, having those check outs, asking people what’s on their mind and digging deeper than they’re fine. 

The other part, obviously quite practically, is actually about the workload that you’re asking people to expect to take on. There's a lot that everybody is carrying and we’re working in circumstances that make normality, this kind of concept of new normal is a bit ironic really because there's nothing normal about what’s going on right now. So managers actually working with people on priorities to talk a bit more about what must continue, what’s important to continue but could be done at a slower pace, and what work is just not relevant or just can't be done in the current circumstances. So for those employers that are able to keep people at work I think that focus on workload and priorities is also critical in helping people balance home and work.

NC: I think what you’re saying there about prioritising is excellent but I just want to pick up with Neil Greenberg this question of managers being empathetic, I mean most of us are not, well we’re not trained social workers, it can be quite intrusive can't it having a clumsy manager making small talk on office video, I mean we all in the normal course of work we have different aspects to our lives don't we, we have multiple rolls and some of us don't even want to share our taste in curtains when we’re on the screen let alone laying bare our personal situations.

NG: You’re absolutely right, there isn't a one size fits all model for how people get support and indeed there's people out there who just don't really access support and they seem to go about their lives quite happily doing so and if you start to try and force those people to have deep and meaningful conversations you're not going to get a good response. But the overwhelming evidence generally from various sources is that social support and social networks are actually very psychologically sustaining. And it’s a very cheesy phrase but I really do believe it in organisations that often resilience doesn’t lie in individuals it lies between them. 

And so there's been a sort of explosion over the last 20 years of interventions and things like yoga or mindfulness or lots of other interesting wellbeing interventions and actually when you look at the overall impact of them they're actually pretty small because what really matters is feeling that your organisation has your back and that you've got someone that you can share your concerns, niggles, or just irritation or complains to and that they’ll listen. 

So as well as making sure that managers can have these psychologically savvy chats another really important protective mechanism within organisations is to have what is often known as a peer support programme. And that basically takes account of the fact that even with the best manager in the work sometimes we’re not going to open up to them, they write my report, they’re going to give me jobs and I don't want them to think bad of me even though they’re a very decent person. But actually most of us will speak to colleagues. And so if you can implement a good evidence-based peer support programme, of which there are a number around, then actually again you begin to build on those social bonds that keep us psychologically well and that's really useful, not just in terms of mental health but also in terms of productivity.

NC: Well that's a great idea. Rachel just talk a bit more about how organisations can support those line managers who are having to do some of this kind of stuff and they’ve perhaps never done it before.

RS: Well yes because now they’re going to be doing it in a very challenging situation. So all those organisations like Microsoft that have invested already in their training and support and advice and guidance for line managers in terms of how they manage people and support their health and wellbeing will really be reaping the benefits but obviously there's an opportunity now, we might be in a crisis situation but it’s still possible for HR teams and employers to extend that support. 

And I think as well as providing guidance and support up front I think it’s really important as well that HR is there to provide more focused and tailored support to help line managers deal with some of the complex personal situations that some people will be in, because we know that some people will be experiencing mental ill health, possibly for the first time, and feel very, very challenged in this situation. Obviously if somebody is known to have a mental health condition before the pandemic then special care needs to be taken there. 

But I think it’s really HR being available to line managers on an ongoing basis to provide that sounding board, and occupational health as well of course. So please do make use of your occupational health teams where you have the benefit of that expertise. So make the most of that as well as your employee assistance programme. But it really is not just a one-off intervention it’s just being there and being supportive of your line managers day in, day out really.

NC: So Andrea Winfield from Microsoft we've heard talk there about occupational health we do still in our minds think about that as something you do with people when they’re in the office so this is quite a different mindset isn't it and managers aren’t equipped to deal with a lot of this?

AW: Well you know managers aren’t trained health professionals and nor should we expect them to be and I think employers having access to these specialist services, whether or not it’s occupational health facilities or through your healthcare premiums and insurances, access to specific referral pathways that get people access to counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy, these are all great resources but they do need to be done by specialists and I think it’s quite important to make that distinction. There's a lot on your average manager’s shoulders day-to-day and managing the health and wellbeing of your team is clearly one of them but in these times I do worry about the pressure that we put on managers to try and be everything to everybody. 

The same with the HR team actually and so having some of these specialist supports and having those support services working virtually so that irrespective of whether or not you’re in a physical office working in customer sight or wherever you might be in the world being able to access some of the support services that complement what’s already available in society is critically important.

NG: So in terms of again going back to the evidence really important study I think that came out of New South Wales in Australia, so they looked at first station managers and these are people who look after firefighters who are obviously going out and doing challenging stuff all the time and what they did is they put in place a four hour training package that enabled the fire station managers to be able to have one of these psychologically savvy conversations and it didn’t just give them information it also gave them the skills and got them to practice it during the session. 

They did what’s called a randomised control trial, which is a really high quality trial and the outcome that they were looking for is how much did it decrease sickness absence in the six months after the intervention. And what they found overall, and it was published in a UK journal, was that for every pound invested in that manager training programme it saved £10 in sickness absence over the following six months. And that's because we know that, and I quite agree with Andrea we shouldn’t be asking managers to be mental health professionals that's wrong and it would stress them out if they had to do so, but actually the simple interventions and the act of listening and understanding what your staff members are going through can have an immense benefit for an organisation and not only will it help people stay fit at work it also increases the chance that they will go and seek professional help if they need it.

AW: I agree entirely with you Neil on that point. One of the things that we’ve been doing and investing in over the last 12 months is encouraging managers and setting out expectations for them to just model, coach and care. Three very simple expectations that we have as managers at Microsoft and in the context of what’s going on right now modelling might look around and asking managers to take care of themselves first. It’s a bit like putting the oxygen mask on yourself so that you’re able to support others, and what healthy routines have you got in place to help role model your own mental and physical wellbeing and the coaching is the conversation that you have and remembering that we’re all human at the end of the day and it’s one human talking to another human and enquiring what’s really on people’s minds and carers just making sure that we’re checking in with one another and giving people that time and creating space for community to happen, whether or not that's peer to peer mentoring or whether or not through employee resource groups, or just making a call. These are the things that we’re asking managers to do right now.

NC: And Neil this situation we’re in at the moment are there parallels with the stressful situations you've helped service people with?

NG: Absolutely. If you look at what the language is of the government at the moment it’s very much battling the virus and people at the front line so I don't think what we know about military life is exactly the same as what’s going on in healthcare or in society as a whole, although the words, ‘Blitz spirit’ has been used from time to time to describe our population, but there is an awful lot that we can learn from the way that militaries look after people. And one of the things I think that we need to, as a country, start to begin to talk about is when we do get back to whatever the new normal is, and I accept it won’t be very normal, is actually the people who have been working incredibly hard are also going to need some time to reintegrate back into whatever the next sort of workplace is. And in an occupational health sense we call that a graded return to work. In a military sense we know that when we send people on deployments for many months at a time and ask them to do incredibly difficult things we don't just bring them home on a Tuesday and ask them to come back to work on a Thursday, we take a staged, progressive approach over a period of a few weeks to allow them to come back into work once they’ve psychologically and physically reset. And I think we need to think about how we do that whenever lockdown begins to recede otherwise we risk breaking people who have already been working as hard as they can.

NC: So Rachel we’ve no idea what this new normal people start to talk about is going to be like, we don't even know really when it’s going to happen and at the time of writing we’re still fully locked down. Let’s just talk about the furloughed because we’ve got this situation where within organisations we have maybe a high proportion of people who are not working, they’re getting 80% of their salary courtesy of the government I mean for now presumably good managers will keep those people in the loop, what can you say about how you start integrating again when more people return to the full-time workforce?

RS: We’ll yes it is important even though we don't know the exact, concrete measures that the government will introduce to start easing the lockdown, we do know that there are certain measures and areas that employers need to start thinking about and preparing their workforce for now. And furlough is one situation, bringing back furloughed employees, but it’s clear that there will be a number of different scenarios in terms of the workforce that employers will need to take into account. Hopefully most employers will have been keeping in touch with any furloughed employees, because they still have a duty of care for their health and wellbeing. So hopefully they will have been communicating to bring them back. Some employers will have been making difficult decisions, possibly about redundancy. 

So we know that whatever the situation and the steps to any easing health and safety and keeping people safe and reassuring them that the organisation has got their health and safety at heart, is going to be really crucial. And then we know that keeping the infection under control is still going to be very, very important. So that has to be the starting point for every employer.

NC: So Andrea Winfield you've been thinking about this I’m sure at Microsoft and it starts with the simplest thing like would you let your employees in a city get on the tube or a metro railway?

AW: Yeah I have to say I'm really quite intimidated and I'm sure every HR leader is feeling the same way about making decisions about when to bring people back to work and how to do so safely. We’re still working through our approach right now but based on what I've read and have learned I think there are a few things that I think as HR leaders we’re all considering. One is clearly the return to work is going to have to be phased. I doubt that many employers can bring people all back at once. We’re going to have to involve employees in making that choice too. So some people may not want to return or may not feel, for whatever reason, that it’s safe to do so. And I think an element of choice in this is going to be important. 

There's the matter of making sure we have enough health and safety supplies and protective equipment for key workers is tough enough without employers also adding to the burden of the demand for those types of resources. Topics around self-certification, around health screening, the privacy related to that, is all something as health professionals and HR professionals that we’re working through. Not to mention things like social distancing at work, it’s not the matter of going back to the office that we had prior to this, even the subject of social distancing in toilets was something I never imagined I’d have a conversation on. But what’s safe to do in an office, let alone travel and other very obvious things. So it’s clear that whatever we’re going back to and whenever we’re going back to it is going to be markedly different than the organisation and premises that we left.

NC: I have to say that working through all this Neil Greenberg sounds to me as difficult, if not more difficult than the job managers have at the moment.

NG: Yeah I certainly think it’s a challenge for managers, as it is a challenge for everyone else in society generally. I think as long as the workforce feels that their management have got their back and have put their interests at heart and so they’re not just looking to try and recoup the profits that they haven’t made over the last few months that will help. We are in this all together, whether we like it or not, and actually as long as people at work feel that I think they’ll hopefully forgive managers for not making the right decision every time because it’s not always clear what the right decision is. 

I think one point that is important to note, there's been a mention about the use of screening, now that term’s used in lots of different ways but it’s really important to recognise that actually trying to do psychological health screening within organisations has been shown not to be helpful. It doesn’t necessarily cause harm but we’ve shown through again good randomised control, high quality trials that actually when you try and get an organisation to ask its employees to fill out questionnaires or to see healthcare professionals in order to try and identify if they’ve got a problem or not, it doesn’t work. People feel suspicious,. They don't tell the truth and also it doesn’t properly measure the symptoms that you need to. 

So I think there's a huge role for organisations providing supportive environments and access to appropriate services but psychological health screening within an organisational setting should not be something that people should be investing time and effort into because the evidence really doesn’t support it’s helpful.

NC: The other aspect of this Rachel Suff is maybe people have seen just some benefits about how they’ve had to work, obviously more homeworking is an obvious one, no commuting, we’ve seen all this community cooperation and in a way you can project some kind of positive onto the future and think well we’ve learnt a different way of living, yes as we’ve already heard the reality is companies will be struggling to survive they’re not going to want to change how they work but many employees might think they ought to?

RS: I mean that's a really good point and I think if organisations and individuals as well can squeeze any kind of positive future out of this situation, this crisis, then that's all to the good because I think a lot of people have been thrown into working from home full-time for example and that might have changed their expectations about what they want from work. Likewise I think many employers and managers will hopefully realise that they can manage a remote workforce and there's been a big learning curve for many of those I'm sure. But I think what this all spells is that when we do have a phased, staged, gradual return to work we will find that people’s expectations will have changed quite a lot, because as Andrea said this isn't the same workplace that people will be returning to. 

So I think there needs to be a lot of readjustment and allowances for people. People's own situations might have changed quite a lot so there needs to be a lot of sensitivity and support for people as they orientate back into the workplace, a very different workplace as Andrea said.

NC: Okay Rachel Suff that's an excellent final thought from you. Let me just ask Neil and Andrea to just add literally a couple of comments before we finish.

NG: I think the only last thing I think it’s worth saying is actually many of us actually might find that actually being out of the workplace, away from difficult workplace relationships with managers or with colleagues, actually although it’s been pressurised it’s actually a bit of a relief and so I think we do have to think that as we go back into whatever sort of workplace it is those already strained relationships may be strained further, so I think organisations just need to remind themselves of what things were like beforehand to make sure they take account of that going forward as well.

AW: I think togetherness is something that's just really important. I don't think employers can do this on their own, neither do I think managers can do this on their own and I think managers and employees and teams and individuals, we all need to come together and figure out how to make this next stage and how to keep talking and how that dialogue must continue as we go forward. I think there's a lot of goodness that can actually come out of this terrible and tragic scenario, I mean we’ve smashed so many ceilings about flexible working and mobile and virtual working, especially in regulated industries where it felt impossible and I think we’re seeing ten years of digital transformation and workplace transformation happening over ten weeks. And there's a lot of opportunity that can be capitalised that will benefit employers and employees alike.

NC: Well thanks very much indeed for that and to all of you: Andrea Winfield, from Microsoft; Professor Neil Greenberg at the March on Stress Consultancy; and the CIPD’s own Rachel Suff.

On this topic just time for a couple of your comments that we got after last month’s COVID podcast: Svetlana at RSI London clearly has no hang-ups about sharing moments with work colleagues to kick off meetings, she says, yesterday it was photos from their childhood and next apparently they’re doing team yoga. I don't know Andrea, Neil and Rachel are up for a bit of yoga now but as Giles from the Hitchhikers Guide to HR told us this is an opportunity for HR to do things to make the future right. Well it’s a big responsibility. Until next time from me Nigel Cassidy and all of us at the CIPD goodbye and keep safe.

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