Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week, and there is a great deal of positive things to be said about a programme of promotion that puts mental health at the heart of everything we do, particularly when it comes to our businesses and our employees.
It’s undeniable that the past couple of months have been incredibly stressful for everyone in the country, let alone those who work within the property market.
In a lot of ways, we’re at a considerable advantage to many other sectors and industries in that – in England at least – the lockdown has been relaxed to an extent where the housing market can effectively open up.
While technology has been an absolute god-send during this period, and will remain absolutely key to how the housing market moves forward, this situation has perhaps reminded us just how important it is for ‘human interaction’ to take place, even if it is at a social distance.
The importance of, and ability, for agents to go out to properties, for clients to also visit those homes, and for surveyors and other property professionals to physically get out to these dwellings, has perhaps been underlined more so than ever.
In our own space, conveyancing firms have done remarkably well in order to set up remote working capability which hasn’t required people to physically be in offices, and the furlough scheme has also allowed us to make sure we have all the resource we need available but not (as yet) at the expense of any jobs.
I’m sure agents feel the same way, but now we have entered a new phase and it seems incredibly important that as property-based firms we are able to take our staff with us as we have moved out of lockdown, and we really need to understand what this means for working practices, our ability to open offices, and – perhaps most importantly – the mental well-being of our employees as we ask them to potentially move out of the status quo they’ve been in for over two months now.
The issue of mental health was raised in a recent Conveyancing Association (CA) webinar and, while we might have perhaps more than our fair share of forward-thinking firms as members, it was informative to realise just how many are taking the mental health needs of their staff incredibly seriously, especially at this time.
From my perspective, there is plenty of good practice ongoing here which might be useful for other property practitioners to take on board. At the heart of this is positive communication with employees because working away from the office might mean that the level of information and interaction they are normally used to, just hasn’t been there.
Firms appear to have taken this on board, with managers regularly speaking to both individuals and teams so that they can feel informed at every step of the way on what the plan is and what that means in terms of a phased return to work.
There is also a required sensitivity to this which might often be overlooked. As one of our member firms pointed out in the webinar, traditionally this has perhaps not been a strength of many businesses, whether based in the property market or not.
Now, however, there is an understanding about the stress that people have been placed under and the anxiety this can create. Even if you’ve not had mental health issues in the past, these could be there now, with one firm utilising the services of a counsellor to help individuals talk through their state of mind, their concerns and worries, and to provide a strong support mechanism.
The feedback for this has apparently been very positive, and other firms have dedicated ‘Mental Health First-Aiders’ who are provide a similar service.
‘Going back to work’ sounds such a matter of fact phrase to use, but given the pandemic, this now takes on a more nuanced meaning and could come with all sorts of difficulties for individuals who may be very concerned about not just their safety in the workplace, but that of their families.
Offices will look different going forward, and another CA member firm is asking employees to make a phased adjustment – coming into the office for a couple of hours to see what has been put in place to heighten their safety. It seems like a good way of getting employees used to a changed environment and to let them know how seriously employers are taking this.
Overall, the pandemic has perhaps highlighted the real need for change in terms of addressing employees’ mental health needs. We perhaps have not taken this as seriously as we should when working in a role which requires interaction with customers in high emotional states on a normal day, with all the stress involved in an uncertain and largely opaque process of moving house, but add into that the hugely stressful situation we are all currently living with, a greater focus on this now and the future should provide clear benefits for both the employee and the firm and, of course, the consumers which we serve.
Our advice would be not to jump in with both feet in terms of ‘back to work’ requests and protocols. Understand what individuals have been living with and their worries about what it means to come into a more social environment like an office or indeed to stay at home where they are starved of those daily social interactions that we, as humans, crave.
Follow the government guidance and mitigate those concerns as much as you can and by doing so, you are likely to take more staff with you so that ultimately you can all get to the safest outcomes for everyone.
*Beth Rudolf is Director of Delivery at the Conveyancing Association (CA)