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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Providing employees with the right support to protect their mental health and build resilience will be crucial for employers in both the short and long term as restrictions relax. There is a very real danger that a mental health crisis of unprecedented proportions could unfold. Employers acting proactively can prevent this happening.