Should counselling replace post-work socials?

Although never the healthiest of pursuits, post-work drinks – whether alcoholic or otherwise – offered an opportunity way to wind down after a day at work and connect with colleagues outside of the nine-to-five.

The coronavirus pandemic has all but put paid to this ritual and, more seriously, an end to us even mixing in the workplace.

Although we’re big advocates of the benefits of working from home, lockdown has taught us that it can lead to unhappiness and mental health issues when it’s forced upon people and it’s full time. Especially for anyone who struggles to separate home and worklife when the commute is taken out of the equaiton.

That’s why Jimmy Williams of Urban Jungle is now putting money into mental health, rather than team socials.

Why Urban Jungle is funding counselling instead of socials

When I founded Urban Jungle I was always determined to be an employer who treated his staff well. I’ve been an employee and I know what it’s like to be put under pressure at work. I don’t feel it’s either the right thing to do, nor is it an effective way to manage people. Looking after people at work is important, but it’s easy to miss stuff when you’re not sitting next to someone every day.

In a sector like ours, which is growing fast, the competition for top talent can be fierce. We’ve always set ourselves up as a leading employer by delivering a fun, sociable office environment with loads of opportunities to learn, but we’re now finding that our model needs to be different.

With the government enforcing working from home, plus the constant public health announcements about COVID, it is understandable that many people feel unnerved. The messaging, which is designed to get people to follow the rules, can overshoot somewhat and is making young people overly fearful.

Younger people struggle with the WFH setup

Lots of younger employees are working from home in less than ideal settings, and without the day-to-day support of seeing colleagues over coffee or lunch. This working arrangement is combined with a constant flow of bad news and, as a result, many are struggling with their mental health. In a recent survey of our team we found about 20% of staff were struggling significantly with their mental health.

The stereotype of young people is that they are out breaking rules and having parties. The reality is different. Many are highly conscientious and are often put at risk of infection as they are more likely to be in customer-facing and frontline roles.

As a company, we are not experiencing any big impact on productivity due to the move to home working. Indeed, work is about the only thing a lot of people have to do these days. But we are worried about giving our team the support they need to build long-term resilience. We’re also finding some other costs are going down – some of our property costs are less, and there’s certainly plenty left in the social budget. Shifting funds into mental health and wellbeing makes sense.

In the first week of lockdown, we gave everyone in the team a £300 per person allowance to buy home office gear; things like proper chairs and standing desks. Now we’re putting money into things like coaching and counselling, which will help people get through this tough winter. We are also setting up processes as a business which will give us sight of when people are struggling, and how we can support them.

We’re now spending about £150 per head per month on new initiatives to support our team through things like mental health coaching and remote socials. We used to spend money on happy hours and after work drinks. These days, it’s more likely to be online yoga sessions or counselling.

It’s really hard to know what to do when the rules change so often, so it would be good to get a more stable set of rules that we have to work with. But looking after our team is very important and we are trying to focus on doing what’s right for them.