How have mental health support services changed to reflect the new normal?

Need to know:

  • Organisations need to adopt a virtual mental health support strategy for the foreseeable future.
  • Mental health support services need to acknowledge that the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic has created new triggers for poor mental health.
  • Organisations should look at ways to build their employees’ resilience to decrease a long-term negative impact of the virus by offering training and implementing a long-term strategy.

The delivery of mental health support services, along with other health services, were forced to change when the UK went into lockdown, and have been changing ever since. Although virtual services have become increasingly popular in this area, with apps and other online support services readily available pre-Covid, nothing can easily replace face-to-face counselling services and the importance of this connection. Mental health support providers have been working on solutions to adapt all of their services to suit the needs of employers and employees.

The future is digital 

There might be initial hesitation from employees to access mental health counselling services online but as the UK moved deeper into the pandemic however, this was one of the first services that providers transitioned to a remote service. Counselling sessions quickly became available over the phone or via video conferencing, and even with fewer restrictions in place, they are here to stay.

Online access to employee assistance programmes (EAPs), cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), therapists and psychiatrists has been increasing in popularity, and this is where the future lies, says Luke James, medical director at Bupa. “Delivering services virtually allows fast access to mental health support,” he says. “Employees should not underestimate the impact on mental health that the sheer lockdown restriction is going to have on the nation’s mental health in the future. Employees need to have direct access to help and support, and that’s huge. I think virtual GPs have also come out of this very quickly as being the first port of call for employees when it comes to making the initial call.

“From a mental health perspective, that’s what we’re going to see continuing. Many mental health support services have had to transition into the remote arena, and that goes across the board. It’s not just mental health, physical health as well has been impacted.”

Support at our fingertips

With both employers and employees fast becoming accustomed to accessing services in a digital format, mental health support apps that encourage meditation and have information to help people cope better with stressful situations, will increase in popularity, says Eugene Farrell, mental health lead at Axa PPP Healthcare. “These apps give employees support by providing self-insight and self-support,” he explains. “A greater number of people are showing symptoms of anxiety and depression, and are using these apps in the hope of getting information and alleviating these symptoms. We don’t really know whether alone they are the answer, but they go a long way in trying to support people to help them get the support they need.”

Acknowledging Covid-19 as a standalone issue

Providers are starting to acknowledge that Covid-19 has its own set of challenges when it comes to mental health issues and they need to offer support services that look at these issues separately. The pandemic should be seen as a cause of mental health issues alongside triggers such as bereavement, long-term stress and work-related stress, says Farrell.

For example, Axa PPP Healthcare has created webinars that are specifically related to situations that may affect an employee’s mental health during the pandemic. The webinars discuss topics such as the management of employees while working remotely as a manager, and how to deal with bereavement when you are unable to attend a funeral, with a question-and-answer session following all webinars.

“Question-and-answer sessions are really popular and that way people can join via video and ask related questions afterwards,” explains Farrell. “It’s not only about giving out information, it’s also about talking about the issues, and talking about the ways people can manage better and deal with the current situation if they have unresolved anxiety.”

Taking a proactive approach

As the UK continues to work remotely, employees’ resilience may waiver and it is really important that employees manage their days to avoid blurring the lines between work and home life. Not addressing this can have a negative impact on long-term resilience.

Jackie Lamping, chief marketing officer at Modern Health, says: “Employers should provide mental health services that teach employees how to build resilience. If people are coming to a stressful situation then they need to be equipped with the skills to get themselves out of that situation; like going for a walk, making tea, calling a friend or a therapist. Then people [if they are equipped with these skills] don’t get into dire straits or in a really bad place.”

More organisations are not just training up mental health first aiders, but are offering employees training in emotional and mental wellbeing, says Peter Larkum, director at Mentality and MHFA England mental health first aid trainer.

“Mental health first aiders who are getting trained: brilliant, but what about the people who aren’t? The people who don’t have the language, training or know that an employee assistance programme (EAP) is available to them? [Employees can be trained] in teams, at home, in the office, on the phone or on a laptop. Only when everybody can speak the same language, will they have the confidence to ask for help.”

Future impact of Covid-19 on mental health support services

Covid-19 might be a physical pandemic but it is also a mental health pandemic and no one is really sure how long it will last, or what the long term effects will be on employees’ mental health.

“We don’t know yet what the post-trauma effect on emergency workers and key workers, in particular, is going to be,” says Farrell. “People keep going while we’re still in it, but we have got to look to the future; [we have] both post trauma and complicated grief to deal with. This will not be over for a long time.”

It is clear that mental health issues will not cease to exist when the pandemic is over, and providers will have to continue to look at ways of providing mental health support services digitally. Organisations will also have to find ways of keeping an eye on employees to ensure any mental health issues are not overlooked.

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