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Protecting mental health in the post-Covid 19 workplace

The events of the past few months have affected everyone. Whether employees have been working from home, furloughed or key workers supporting others and keeping the country going, everyone has faced their own challenges. But as we come to terms with a new way of life, the impact on our mental health is still unclear. So how can employers help prevent mental ill-health in the post-Covid workplace?

If businesses believe the threat’s been blown out of proportion, it’s not a view shared by the UK’s mental health organisations. In June, 62 agencies, including the Mental Health Foundation and Young Minds, wrote to Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Believing the effects of the unprecedented crisis are likely to be widespread and long-lasting, they asked him to address the “urgent need” to support our mental health and wellbeing.

As we emerge from lockdown, the mental health pressures on employees will change. After dealing with the challenge of social distancing and being separated from colleagues, the thought of returning to the office, getting back on public transport, or coming off furlough could be overwhelming. They are likely to experience a whole range of emotions from excitement and optimism to anger and anxiety. It’s important that employers recognise this and put plans in place to effectively support the mental health and wellbeing of their employees – both for now and the months to come.

Emerging mental health challenges

An ONS survey at the end of May found more than two-thirds (69%) of UK adults said they were very or somewhat worried about the effect of Covid 191. But whatever an employee’s situation, the challenges of the last months will have had an impact. Dealing with new ways of working or even not working at all, only make up part of the picture. People have also had to cope with their whole lives changing literally overnight. Juggling childcare and work, being separated from loved ones and dealing with financial pressures are just some of the issues they have had to face.

Feeling more isolated

Even before the pandemic, levels of loneliness were already worryingly high. Somewhere between 6% and 18% of the UK population reported often feeling lonely2– something which can have a significant impact on both mental and physical health. Since lockdown, the number of UK adults who say they often or always feel lonely has risen to 25%3.

Men have been particularly impacted. New research has discovered that 79% of men living alone are struggling with feelings of isolation while working from home, while 39% say their mental health has deteriorated. This increased in young men aged 18-30, where 40% said their mental health has been negatively impacted4.

With over 90% of the workforce5 saying they’d like to continue working from home at least some of the time after the restrictions are lifted, employers need to consider what this could mean for their employees’ mental health. While working from home avoids a potentially time-consuming commute and can help improve the work/life balance, it can be easy to feel detached and isolated. Employers should think about what measures they can put in place to prevent this happening.

Increased alcohol consumption

One of the side-effects of lockdown has been an increase in our alcohol intake. According to Action on Addiction, a quarter of adults were drinking more in June than before March6. Regardless whether this was a way of dealing with boredom, or raised levels of anxiety and stress, 15% of those who are drinking more said they were experiencing problems, including having issues with work. Employers need to be aware of these shifts in behaviour and ensure employees know where to turn if they’re struggling with drink.

Fear of meeting people

Since lockdown began, official messaging has emphasised the need to stay at home and avoid contact with people as much as possible. Even as restrictions ease and more places open, we’re told to stay alert against an invisible threat. The consequences of venturing out and leaving the safety of home can feel immense, especially to those either with underlying health issues or who have a vulnerable family member. Many employees may be worried about returning to work and being alongside colleagues again.

Fear of open spaces or being in a situation that feels unsafe – agoraphobia – was already common in the UK pre-lockdown, with an estimated 5 million sufferers, and one that affects approximately twice as many women as men7.

With large numbers of people spending a prolonged period of time at home, this figure is likely to increase. After spending so long in a safe and comfortable environment, many will fear the uncertainty of what their workplace will be like, being surrounded by people again and worry about how they’ll keep themselves safe. It’s vital that employers recognise this understandable anxiety and reassure employees that every precaution is being taken to ensure their safety.

Tips for employers and leaders

  • Encourage employees to be proactive and look after their own wellbeing, while reminding them that your door’s always open if they need support.
  • Look for any changes in their behaviour or signs that they might be struggling – early intervention can prevent a problem from becoming a long-term issue.
  • Consider mental health training to equip line managers with the skills to spot and support an employee who may be having difficulties.
  • Provide employees with access to trusted and reputable resources to keep them informed, but not overloaded with information.
  • Clearly communicate the safety measures that have been introduced to make the workplace Covid-19 safe and ensure employees understand the guidelines in place.
  • Encourage employees to limit how much they talk and share about the virus. The more it dominates the topic of conversation, the more it’s likely to increase fear and anxiety.
  • Keep talking to employees, be honest about your plans and acknowledge the concern that’s likely to exist.
  • Good work is good for mental health – provide employees with clear objectives and directions so they know exactly what is expected of them.
  • Highlight to employees what mental health support is available, such as an Employee Assistance Programme. Clearly communicate how they can access the service and emphasise it will be confidential.
  • Signpost employees to appropriate expertise provided by external organisations, such as Mind.
  • Consider how you can offer extra support to employees who may be struggling more, such as those with caring responsibilities or those that live alone.
  • Recognise employees that are doing a good job and reward their efforts.
  • Those that previously have had mental health problems may suffer a recurrence of their illness – be proactive and offer them support.
  • Encourage and facilitate volunteering opportunities for employees. Helping others is an effective way to boost mental health.
  • Support employees to develop their own skills, providing them with a positive focus and ensuring they look forward, rather than reflect on past difficulties.
  • Promote personal care plans for employees – urge them to take the time to think about what they can do for themselves to build resilience and boost their mental health.
  • Offer practical support and advice to employees around their journey to work, such as allowing employees to work flexibly, so they can avoid rush hour.
  • Encourage the use of video meeting tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams so people working from home can keep in touch and see colleagues.
  • Keep monitoring the situation. Everyone is moving into unknown territory, so regularly check-in with employees to ensure the mental health support available covers all their needs.
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