Samantha Frost CA explains the need to foster a culture that promotes mental fitness in the new era of work
ICAS is supporting members, students and staff to protect their mental health and become leaders in the space. Samantha Frost CA tells Anna Melville-James why now is the time to put wellbeing first
With Covid-19 restrictions now mostly lifted, businesses and employees are beginning to formalise a new world of work post pandemic, driven by smashing old norms around work-life balance. But finding a new landscape that offers home, hybrid and office working models for individuals, while companies navigate how these can knit together on a business level, is still a work in progress.
What is clear, though, is that repeated lockdowns, and adjusting our ways of working over the past two years, have proved overwhelming for some, with many experiencing damage to their mental health. According to the Office for National Statistics, one in six adults experienced some form of depression in June 2021, nearly double pre-pandemic levels, while 2021 research for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development showed 79% of respondents reporting they had seen some stress-related absence from work over the past year. So, how can we take control of our mental fitness as we move into more settled, albeit uncharted, waters?
“The new normal is about becoming comfortable with ambiguity and change,” says Samantha Frost CA, ICAS Members Board Lead for Student and Member Wellbeing and Director of Think Wellbeing. “When we lose control of the environment, the best thing to focus on is what you can control – from a work perspective that’s ‘how do I want to show up at work?’ Looking at your personal environment and working out how you want it to look is an opportunity – that’s where your focus needs to be.”
One of the issues employees faced when homeworking was the dissolving of natural boundaries between personal and professional space. In the new normal it becomes even more important to consider how you want to structure your day and which boundaries are needed for long-term wellbeing. That might mean a rule that laptop and phone go off at 5pm or, for example, leaving the office early on a Wednesday to take your turn at the school run. Transparent discussions with line managers can help redefine expectations on both sides, in turn reducing stress.
Wellbeing, notes Frost, is the ability to be resilient and still enjoy your downtime, even when working hard. “You know in yourself when you’re not coping well,” she notes. And signs of distress and imbalance can include markers along a spectrum of severity such as changes in sleep; irritability or anxiety; or turning to crutches such as food or alcohol. Knowing your personal stress profile can help you deal with things long before they become a crisis. “It’s easy to say ‘I feel stressed’ but you need to understand what that actually looks like for you,” says Frost. “Then you can put things in place to manage those triggers.”
Wellbeing for all
It’s not enough, though, for businesses or individuals to tick boxes on their “new normal” checklist and never think about it again. Wellbeing will be a constant process of reflection and evolution to ensure the needs of all parties are met.
For organisations, success means embedding this new shift into the culture. “Leaders have a responsibility to create psychological safety in the workplace, so that people can speak up and say if they’re struggling,” says Frost. “We need people championing that from board level down, making it clear that wellbeing is a strategic priority. There’s a willingness now to be vulnerable which is helping to drive that narrative – people also realise wellbeing is not a nice-to-have any more, it’s essential.”
ICAS’ focus has been on fostering a culture that promotes mental fitness for the new era of work. “ICAS has made a mental fitness pledge to be the industry leader in supporting members and students,” says Frost. Members can find help and support, from articles to signposted resources, on the wellbeing hub. Meanwhile, ICAS is conducting ongoing surveys with members and students to find out what they need, and then acting on their feedback.
Looking out for others is also essential in building a culture that supports wellbeing, whether in the office or online. “Mental health training has also been rolled out for all ICAS staff,” says Frost, “which is fantastic because I know what I learned during that training has been hugely beneficial in terms of seeing red flags – when you get a feeling there’s something not quite right with someone. People need to know how to talk to someone that they’re worried about – you’re never going to make any situation worse by asking ‘are you okay?’”
In the end, it’s important to be vocal, visible and even curious about what is happening. Because, as Frost notes, you may be the only person you know who is speaking up about it but, as we all move through this new transition together, it’s likely you’ll be speaking for many.