How is COVID-19 affecting our mental health?
There are many factors to consider including the impact of the past lockdowns and ongoing restrictions such as social distancing and self-isolation. Some employees are still fearful about contracting the virus, others are more anxious about family and friends and many may have suffered bereavements during the pandemic, often without the chance to say goodbye or attend funerals and so on. There are of course also fears about job security, employees returning to the workplace from homeworking, and financial concerns as well of course.
Some employees are also working longer or more irregular hours and many are combining work with other family responsibilities, and that can lead to a poor work-life balance. There are also potential mental health implications for some of those who are temporarily laid off for a long time.
Research has shown, that employees are reporting reduced motivation, loss of purpose and motivation, anxiety and isolation. Evidence from previous quarantine situations, prior to the current covid 19 pandemic, suggests that there are and can be long lasting effects on mental health in these extreme circumstances. And These symptoms ranged from irritability and anger to depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms.
What should employers do?
It is well known that many employees do not feel comfortable in speaking up about poor mental health; now this is unlikely to change following the pandemic and there has always been, unfortunately a stigma attached.
Employers will need to adapt a range of measures to support employees experiencing poor mental health as a result of COVID-19 and its effects on society and the economy. Now, this support will be required in the short term (such as during the return to the workplace for many workers) as well as over the longer term.
Measures need to range from supporting employees to regain an effective work-life balance and addressing fears about return to work, right through to support for severe mental health conditions.
What remains important is that people experiencing poor mental health are not labelled by focusing on a diagnosis, and instead discussions and support, focus on the impact it has on them at work .
Prevention is key – what can employers do now
Well , Employers have two current areas of focus to consider. Firstly, supporting the mental health of employees who are physically working in the workplace, many of whom will be working under significantly increased pressure that may make them more vulnerable to stress or other mental health conditions.
Secondly, employers need to support those who are currently working from home and may or may not (depending) start to return to the workplace on a phased or adjusted basis in the weeks and months ahead.
And we know , the resilience of all employees has been challenged by the current situation – although the mental health and wellbeing implications of this will still vary from employee to employee.
There are a few preventative measures Employers need to consider:
- The first being, where employees have worked remotely, they need a re-induction into the physical workplace to help them feel connected and engaged again.
- Also, briefing managers on the potential mental health implications of COVID-19 and their specific roles and responsibilities in relation to supporting staff is very important.
- Communicating regularly on wellbeing and mental health support, wherever possible supported by activities that encourage physical, mental, financial and social wellbeing is also very important.
- Providing mental health awareness-raising activities – working towards a culture where IT is acceptable to talk about and seek support for poor mental health.
Early intervention is important?
Yes because, where the signs and symptoms of poor mental health and well-being are well understood at all levels within a workplace, it can support early intervention and the opportunity to take early action to prevent the situation from escalating. So, sharing information about mental health can also enable employees to identify signs, especially early ones, in themselves and help them seek support.
Some of the typical signs and symptoms of poor or declining mental health may be more difficult to identify in employees working from home or working more flexibly. So, it’s also important that we do not neglect that.
What are the typical signs?
So, Typical signs would include:
- Working long hours / not taking breaks
- Increased sickness absence or lateness maybe
- Mood changes
- Distracted, indecision or confusion
- Someone Withdrawing
- Irritable, anger or acts of aggression
- Uncharacteristic performance issues
- Or Over-reaction to problems or issues
- And Disruptive or anti-social behaviour
If one or more of those signs are observed it does not necessarily mean that an individual is experiencing poor mental health but it should be a prompt for a manager to have a well-being conversation whilst also taking care not to make assumptions.
It’s also worth mentioning, where more specialist advice is required, consider a referral to Occupational Health. I would advise Every employer should have access to an occupational health expert for their workers.
Wherever possible, training to managers on how to respond to a disclosure, as well as how to approach the allowance for ongoing support for the individual.
People managers/line managers play a critical role in supporting employee well-being and mental health: how people are treated and managed on a day-to-day basis is central to mental health. And we know that Management style is also the second main cause of work-related stress. So, training and awareness of mental health is critical at management level.
How can employers/managers Support the return to the workplace or indeed the continuance of Remote/Hybrid working
The complex nature of well-being and mental health means that there is no single solution for supporting the returning to the workplace. It is clear that the return to normality will be gradual and phased, with those employees who can do so, continuing to undertake a degree of homeworking and many Businesses may or have already decided that a more hybrid way of working will continue.
Employees may also be working a range of different patterns and hours to allow for effective social distancing and Some activities may remain curtailed. Even if employees are not experiencing poor mental health, they may have concerns and fears about the return to a physical workplace, things like using public transport again or staying safe in the work environment and so on.
There are some potential interventions for employers to consider:
- First of all, continue providing employees with ways to connect with colleagues whilst working from home or social distancing. Promoting online communities, virtual social groups and using social media can all help to connect people.
- Provide manager training on mental health conditions including signs and symptoms.
- Consider introducing an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) if one does not exist already in your workplace.
- Review existing mental health services in your workplace as well, to determine if they can cope with increased demand within the business.
- Offer work life balance support such as 121 coaching, guidance or training.
- Provide mental health awareness activities for the wider organisation. Maybe the promotion of national events, workshops or certain awareness campaigns.
- Offer resources for employees to access in their own time. These can be produced specifically for the organisation or maybe tailored using external sources.
- Wherever possible, encourage senior leaders to include messaging about well-being and mental health in wider communications about the ongoing organisational response to the pandemic. Because again, this can help to create a culture where it is acceptable to talk about mental health.
- Establish a network of well-being or mental health champions in your business, who can support the organisation as well. Again, this can create a positive culture around mental health.