Homa Wilson: Employers need to be aware of the mental wellbeing pressures caused by the pandemic

There is little doubt that the global Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic will have ongoing mental health implications for the population. Research undertaken by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), The mental health effects of the first two months of lockdown and social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK, published in June 2020, found that mental health is substantially worse, by 8.1% on average, as a result of the pandemic.

The burden on some is proving overwhelming; many are having to contend with multiple stressors. As well as dealing with the fear of catching the virus, people are suffering from bereavement and grief, increased social isolation and loneliness, as well as the burden of homeschooling.

Work-related stressors add to these anxieties. Some of the main factors are unhealthy home-working practices, fear of returning to work, being furloughed and job uncertainty.

Employers have a legal duty to protect the health and welfare of their workforce and will have additional duties concerning staff who have mental health conditions which fall within the definition of ‘disability’ as defined in the Equality Act 2010. Employers need to take stock and consider what steps to take to help and protect their workforce.

Addressing unhealthy working practices

To address concerns, it is important to understand the impact of Covid-19 on staff. Employers should use questionnaires to get a picture of the difficulties faced by their workforce and invite suggestions for how these can be addressed. Employers should carry out a risk assessment for each member of staff, which, as well as focusing on the equipment they use, should also seek to identify and address any mental health concerns.

Working from home can result in employees struggling to work within designated working hours and not taking breaks. Employers should encourage staff to set designated working hours and schedule regular breaks. This can be done by sending regular communications reminding staff to switch off, take time to exercise and for relaxation.

Employees may need time off to look after dependants and might be unable to work during their normal working hours. Employers need to be understanding. Many employers have encouraged staff to work flexibly and arrange their working time around childcare commitments. It is important to communicate this to staff.

Employers need to inform and remind staff of available support: this could include help from HR or signposting a confidential counselling helpline paid for by the employer.

Employers should be alert to early signs of any mental health problems and should consider arranging mental health training for managers, as well as appointing mental health champions for staff to talk to; people must not feel alone when they are experiencing mental health issues.

The impact of furlough on wellbeing

Many furloughed employees reported feeling a loss of self-esteem and self-worth; this was exacerbated by lack of structure or purpose in their day and left them feeling isolated.

Some employees may have welcomed being furloughed in order to focus on other responsibilities, such as childcare and caring for dependants. The impact on others may have been significantly worse. For those living alone, it might have compounded their feelings of isolation.

Employers should have communicated why the decision was made and why the employee was selected. For furloughed employees who did not undertake any work, employers should have ensured they continued to feel part of the team, so, for example, were updated on any changes to the team.

Unfortunately, redundancies may be unavoidable. Nevertheless, being made redundant can feel very personal and impact self-esteem. Employers can minimise this by following a few simple steps.

Employers must consult with those who are at risk of redundancy. If face-to-face consultations are not possible, arrange a video call. Explain why redundancies are necessary, explore alternative roles and listen to what the employee has to say; consultation should be a two-way process. It is important for the employee to feel heard, and that the process is not personal. Explain how the process will work, including how long it will take to conclude.

Employers can play an important role in safeguarding the health of the nation. Unless we act now to address the mental health needs arising from the pandemic, there will be enormous long-term consequences for families and communities, which will inevitably have an impact on the workforce and the economy.

Homa Wilson is a partner at Hodge Jones and Allen