Amid a constant news feed about the differential impact of Covid-19 (Coronavirus) on individual countries it is easy to forget areas of commonality: regardless of geographical location, the issues facing employees are similar. The ‘work at home if you can’ message has been heeded by much of the developed world and millions of office workers have been thrust into working remotely, away from colleagues. Likewise, the relentless pressure experienced by frontline health and care workers at the peaks of the various waves of the virus will be globally shared.
The direct and indirect effects of the virus have compounded new stressors of daily living, and escalating levels of depression have been reported. Remote working, home schooling and isolation from social or family support have added to or eclipsed anxiety about acquiring or recovering from the virus. There is wide consensus that Covid-19 has brought about a mental health crisis as well as a public health one.
In the context of remote working, it’s tempting for employers to signpost workers to generic, online sources of information about mental health, but it’s unclear whether workers like these or benefit from them: ultimately people need people. So it’s never been more important for HR departments to support line managers and ensure they are equipped to identify who is struggling and, where appropriate, direct their staff to specialist occuaptional health support. A recent Institute for Employment Studies (IES) study, Mental health training for line managers, published February/March 2020, showed that a short online course is just as effective as face-to-face learning on this topic.
Arguably, a more targeted and resource-intensive approach is necessary for frontline workers whose experience at the sharp end of dealing with the virus has been traumatic. The mental health of staff working in intensive care during Covid-19 research, published in January 2021 by Kings College London, has shown nearly half of intensive care unit staff have shown signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), severe anxiety or problem drinking as a result of the pandemic. Responding to these issues requires specialist input and meeting this requirement globally will be challenging.
In helping people thrive at work in a post-pandemic world, wellbeing functions within organisations are in relatively unchartered waters. Recognising that people have had very different experiences and triaging their needs will a priority. Sharing learning will be important so we all emerge from this wiser and better at creating supportive work environments.
Sally Wilson is senior research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES)