Over the past year, with more people working remotely, many of us have had a greater insight into our colleagues’ home lives than we could have ever anticipated. However, while we may see young children pottering into view and cats tapping across keyboards in Zoom meetings, this small window into peoples’ lives doesn’t tell the whole story of their working experience during COVID-19.

As lockdown restrictions ease and employers begin considering what workplace policies might look like going forward, we must focus on protecting the wellbeing of the whole workforce and recognise the unique challenges that many people face. This includes women, People of Colour and Black people, people with disabilities, and people who identify as LGBT+. Employers need to act to create workplace cultures where everyone can voice their ideas, thoughts, and concerns without fear or judgement.

To provide an example of challenges faced by a specific employee demographic, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England’s research found that over double the number of female employees (68 per cent), compared to men (31 per cent), said their workplace confidence had decreased due to the pandemic. In addition, many more women (64 per cent) than men (36 per cent) reported an increase in feelings of loneliness or isolation during the pandemic.

Alongside these key findings on workplace attributes, wider research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows remote working could risk setting back the clock on gender equality. For example, younger women aged 25-34 and working mothers have been hit the hardest by the economic impact of COVID-19, with working mothers nearly 50 per cent more likely than working fathers to have lost their job or quit.

The role of employers

Employers have a key role to play in driving positive transformation in workplace mental health. As the nation faces a mental health crisis in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, more people than ever will need mental health and wellbeing support.

Mental health and wellbeing support needs to be clearly communicated so that all employees know what is available to them and how to access it. Regular wellbeing catch-ups with colleagues are a vital way to support people’s mental health, especially as some people may choose to continue working remotely due to factors such as caring responsibilities and poor health.

The My Whole Self MOT is a simple, free tool to help employees check in on their own and others’ mental health and wellbeing. Employers can share the MOT with teams, and line managers can use the questions outlined to help start a conversation about mental health during one-to-one sessions.

Understanding the different challenges that employees face

The COVID-19 pandemic has created social, economic, and health uncertainties and insecurities. It has exacerbated inequalities for many, so it’s particularly important that underrepresented groups are able to access support. For example, recent research by the Resolution Foundation found that the UK jobless rate for young Black people rose by more than a third to 35 per cent compared with a rate of 24 per cent for young people of Asian descent, and a rate of 13 per cent for young White people.

Black women and Women of Colour face unique obstacles and barriers, as do people from the LGBT+ community and people with disabilities, so it’s important to recognise that a one size fits all approach will not work. For example, 46 per cent of Black women feel their ideas are not heard or recognised, and Women of Colour are more likely than White women to feel that they need to compromise their authenticity if they want to be leaders.

Employers must be aware of these challenges and actively work to create safe workplaces for all employees, so that everyone can safely and proudly bring their whole self to work. In 2021, we shouldn’t have to leave parts of our identity behind – be that our gender identity, cultural or ethnic background, sexuality, disability, or health. Being able to bring our whole self to work is better for our mental health and wellbeing, and better for business.

Creating a safe space for staff to speak openly about their mental health and wellbeing will help people to ask for support if they are experiencing issues such as poor mental health or struggling to manage their work-life balance. Managers should strive to lead with empathy and listen non-judgmentally to all employees. If concerns related to the workplace are raised, employees should feel confident that changes will be made to improve the workplace culture and environment.

Working flexibly

As lockdown measures begin to ease, employers should continue to offer flexible working arrangements. Statistics show that women are more likely to be single parents than men, and are nearly 1.5 times as likely to feel a greater childcare burden than men as a result of the impact of the pandemic. Flexible working arrangements can help all employees to better plan their working weeks and feel confident that they can adjust their working hours if responsibilities change. Employers need to make the guidelines for flexible working clear, and conversations should be had with individual employees about what works best for them.

In light of the challenges brought about by the pandemic, it is more important than ever to shift the dial on workplace culture and wellbeing, and ensure that diversity and inclusion is at its centre.

Workplaces play a key role in creating a society where everyone’s mental health matters, and so all employees who belong to marginalised groups should feel empowered and supported to bring their whole selves to work now and in the future.

*To find out more about MHFA England, visit their site here.