Workplace wellbeing re-examined: could empathy and kindness be the lasting legacy of the pandemic?

New research from AXA’s annual Mind Health Study reveals that although the UK has the highest level of mental ill-health in Europe, the COVID-19 pandemic has driven a reduction in the stigma around mental health and made the UK a more compassionate and empathetic nation. UK insight also shows a positive shift in workplace culture, with an increase in kindness and empathy at work over the past two years. The data suggests that providing good mental health support in the workplace is an important way for leaders to ensure their employees are happy, productive and motivated.

The second edition of the AXA Mind Health Study is a comprehensive look into the current state of mind health among 11,000 people in 11 countries and territories in Europe and Asia. It provides a detailed picture of how people fared mentally at the height of the pandemic and beyond and aims to act as an essential resource to support individuals, businesses, healthcare professionals and policymakers as they develop their approach to good mind health.

The study reveals that the UK has the highest prevalence of mental health conditions in Europe, with two in five (37%) people experiencing at least one condition and almost a quarter (24%) ‘struggling’, according to the AXA Mind Health Index. However, the data also suggests that perceptions surrounding mental health are shifting in a more positive way. Findings show the pandemic has been a catalyst in helping to de-stigmatise mental health conditions in the UK with more people able to have open conversations about their own struggles. Half of people in the UK think the stigma around mental health is declining, whereas only a third (31%) of Europeans believe the same. Half (49%) of Brits also feel that they are better able to acknowledge when they may need support and 46% reported feeling more compassionate to others compared to pre-pandemic.

Alongside a reduction in stigma, the UK insight suggests empathy, kindness and openness at work has increased – with 29% saying they’ve been more open about their own mental health with colleagues and 55% saying they’ve been kinder towards colleagues over the past two years.

However, the study also highlights challenges surrounding the provision of mental health support. The public sector is experiencing unprecedented pressure due to the pandemic, which in turn has had a major effect on people’s mental health. This is reflected in perceptions around lack of support, with less than a quarter (23%) agreeing that the UK’s public healthcare system provides support for people with mental health conditions, compared to 46% who disagree. Additionally, many employers are still not providing enough support – or their employees are not aware of it – with only 40% of people saying their work currently provides good mental health support. Managers, in particular, are at the highest risk of poor mental health, with one in four experiencing a mental health condition. The good news is that organisations that do prioritise mental health can make a real difference, with the study showing that those who are supported at work are 1.6 times more likely to be happy and almost twice as likely to be ‘flourishing’. This suggests that providing mental health support in the workplace not only benefits the organisation, it benefits wider society too and can play a key role in alleviating the strain on the public healthcare system.

COVID-19 also seems to have improved the approach to wellbeing of many organisations, with over half of people in the UK saying the culture at their workplace has become more empathetic since the pandemic. This has had a favourable impact on workforce productivity and happiness: 45% are more motivated, 38% are more productive, 32% perform better and 28% are happier in their jobs.

‘While our new research shows that the UK’s workplace culture is becoming kinder and more empathetic, many organisations still need to do more to ensure they’re providing enough mental health support to their workforce or making sure their employees know what’s available. The pandemic has posed many challenges, but one positive is that it has allowed us to have more open conversations about mental health at work. Leaders should be using this opportunity to look at the support they’re providing and where gaps may be.’

‘As an insurer, we strongly believe that our duty is not confined to just stepping in when things go wrong, and we hope our AXA Mind Health Study can act as an essential resource to support individuals, businesses, healthcare professionals and policymakers as they develop their approach to good mind health.’

‘Our study shows that organisations which support the mental health of their employees will not only benefit from a happier, healthier and more productive workforce, they will benefit wider society too. It really is a win-win for everyone.’ Claudio Gienal, CEO at AXA UK&I

Further research by AXA looked into the UK’s attitudes towards how workplace culture has changed as a result of the pandemic and found that:

  1. 30% of people feel more comfortable discussing their mental wellbeing with their employers
  2. 42% of people feel that the pandemic has shown them that having strong connections with people at work is important for their mental health
  3. 72% of people feel like they have coped well at work during the pandemic

‘The pandemic has disrupted our old social networks and forced us to forge and sustain relationships in new and different ways. Kindness is a great way of doing this, and the pandemic has offered plenty of opportunities to demonstrate kindness and empathy. Consistent with previous research, the results of this survey suggest the increased empathy at work has improved employee wellbeing, which previous research has shown i may lead to better career success too. So there’s a real case for businesses to experiment with measures that support their employees and ensure they’re happy at work.’ Dr Oliver Scott Curry, Research Director at Kindness.

To view the AXA Mind Health Study and to find a range of helpful advice on how to support the mind health of employees, follow the link here.

We will be discussing mindfulness and well being at Governance 2022.

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