Since the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown restrictions started, many of our lives have drastically changed. We are limited on who we can see, how we work, and when and where we can access services. How people cope with these changes varies from person to person. Some people might have enjoyed certain aspects of lockdown, like spending more time with their families and working from home. Others may have struggled with their mental health and had difficulty coping with these new challenges. As we enter a second wave of the pandemic, mental health issues are expected to increase, and with that are growing concerns on how that will impact workplaces and the global economy.
Employers have a responsibility to address and manage mental health issues among their employees in ‘normal’ times, but particularly as we get into a second wave. Failing to do so will not only affect individuals on a personal level, but can have major implications on families, organisations and society as a whole. There are many things that employers can do to support their employees through this turbulent time.
Impact of this year
The initial wave of the Covid-19 pandemic was an extremely challenging time for many people around the world. As early into the pandemic as April 2020, researchers linked Covid-19 with a general deterioration in mental health in the UK. Another study conducted six months into Covid-19 restrictions found that people’s ability to handle the stress of the pandemic has been slowly declining in the UK. Around half of the population in the UK had reported feeling anxious or worried, with 18% of people experiencing feelings of loneliness in late August. Many people have experienced (or are still experiencing) stress, anxiety, depression or feelings of loneliness or isolation. It is common for people to feel irritable, have feelings of helplessness or have trouble sleeping. This range of concerns and experiences could stem from many factors related to the pandemic, for example:
- Fear or concern over your own or others’ health and wellbeing
- Confusion or lack of understanding around new restrictions in place
- Lack of access or changes to services
- Financial difficulties
- Social isolation
- Changes in your daily routine
- Changes in your work environment, schedule and workload
- Financial, employment or economic uncertainty and instability
- Loss of a loved one to Covid-19
But now we are getting into a second wave of the pandemic. With a second wave, also comes a second wave of mental health concerns, which will bring further challenges to individuals, families, organisations and communities. There is expected to be an increase in depression, post-traumatic stress, suicides, drug and alcohol misuse and prolonged periods of grief as millions around the world die from the virus. For comparison, consider the SARS pandemic of 2003. Follow up research conducted four years later found that 42.5% of survivors and 50% of the bereaved met the criteria for a mental illness.
Challenges business face
The impact of poor mental health in the workplace is well-known. Failure to manage this issue effectively can harm productivity, morale and retention, as well as increase absenteeism – all affecting the organisation’s bottom line and competitive positioning. So while your organisation is operating during the pandemic, maintaining a focus on employee wellbeing is still crucial.
From a business perspective, these concerns alone are worth addressing. But taking care of your employees’ wellbeing is also important from a moral and ethical standpoint, and in some cases, a legal one. While many of the concerns around mental health and wellbeing might not be directly work-related, employers have a duty of care to protect their employees’ health, safety and wellbeing.
Taking an active role in managing mental health within your workplace can have a positive impact on the organisation, but also society as a whole.
What employers can do
While it is good to have short-term crisis response procedures in place, organisations need to create long-term solutions to help prevent and manage mental health concerns in the workplace. Covid-19 isn’t going away, and neither are the mental health and wellbeing problems around it. It is critical that employers take proactive steps to protect and foster employee wellbeing during these uncertain times.
1) Communicate regularly
Many staff, particularly staff that work from home, may not be communicating as much with their managers and teams. Coupled with the lack of social interaction with friends, family and colleagues, this could lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation. Managers should make an effort to contact their staff regularly and arrange meetings so employees can stay up-to-date with any decisions or changes. Build interpersonal relationships with your staff and check in with them. How are they? How are they doing with homeworking or with the current regulations? When asking these questions, it is important to actively listen and empathise with people’s varying feelings and experiences as everyone handles hardship in different ways.
Communication and listening help employees feel supported. When employees feel supported at work, they are more likely to be engaged, more satisfied with their job, have reduced levels of stress and mental health issues.
2) Encourage socialising
We are social beings and staying connected with others is a vital part of our mental wellbeing. To keep work social, organise online social events or socially distanced meetups if government regulations permit it. But opportunities to socialise don’t have to be extravagant – they can be as simple as extending a weekly meeting from 30 minutes to an hour to give everyone a chance to chat and catch up with each other. Or spend five minutes extra minutes in a morning meeting answering a question of the day.
3) Promote self-care
As we delve into a second wave of the pandemic and the winter months, everyone should take extra care of their wellbeing. Encourage staff to implement self-care measures to help nourish their physical, emotional and mental health. For example, eating healthy foods, practising mindfulness, getting enough sleep and staying connected.
Employers can promote these practices in various ways. You can provide online mental health resources with information on how people can look after themselves. Another streamlined way to make sure everyone receives and engages with this information is to enrol them on online wellbeing training, which is particularly useful now that many people are working remotely. Enrol your staff on courses such as Nutrition, Healthy Living, Physical Activity, Mindfulness, Financial Wellbeing and Resilience, all of which have tips and tricks for minding yourself both in normal and difficult situations.
4) Offer mental health awareness training and surveys
It can be challenging for some people to recognise when their mental health and wellbeing might be suffering. They might not have ever experienced challenges to this degree, or maybe they have a hard time identifying negative feelings or have poor methods of coping.
Creating awareness around mental health can help your employees recognise signs of concern and work towards preventing or managing mental health problems. Mental health awareness training also helps break down stigmas associated with mental health problems and can make it clear to your employees that the organisation is proactive and supportive about their wellbeing.
Stress or mental health surveys is another method to assess how your staff are doing. With a compliance tracking system, you can easily send out surveys, enrol your employees on online training, track completions and gather survey data, helping your organisation reach all of your employees with ease.
5) Promote seeking support
Encourage staff to reach out and ask for help and support if they need it. This can be with a trusted colleague, their GP or medical health professional, or anyone else inside or outside the organisation. Make sure they know how and who they can contact within the organisation for help, for example, occupational health or the employee assistance programme.
It can also be beneficial to provide contact details for external mental health support services, for example, mental health hotline numbers or links to websites for different mental health organisations. Make sure all staff can easily access this information.
Organisations can make a major difference in employees’ mental health and wellbeing both inside and outside of the workplace. You can do this by keeping in regular contact with your staff and offering more opportunities for people to socialise both during and after work. But people also need to know what they can do to take care of themselves during the second wave and know how to recognise the signs and reach out for help if they have concerns about their mental wellbeing. You can keep employees informed and show your support by providing resources, online training or simply lending them your ear when things get tough.
By working together and looking after one another, everyone can better cope with the challenges of the pandemic and continue to lead productive and healthy lives.