What support is available for the long-term impact of the pandemic on staff mental health?

Need to know:

  • The pandemic has worsened employee mental health, with support services reporting increased incidents of conditions such as anxiety and depression.
  • Training line managers to manage remotely and allowing them to flex rules around employees’ needs can take pressure off them and their staff.
  • Consulting with employees and listening to their concerns is key to creating a mentally healthy workplace and enabling a return to work.

The Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic will leave a deep and lasting scar on the mental wellbeing of millions, according to mental health charity Mind. And, as normality begins to return, organisations have an important role to play in supporting their employees and preventing a second pandemic in mental health.

Warning signs started to emerge not long after the UK went into lockdown. Research by Mind, which was conducted in April and May 2020, shows that 60% of people thought their mental health had got worse during lockdown.

Eugene Farrell, chair of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA), isn’t surprised by these findings. “Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) have been really busy throughout the pandemic,” he says. “It’s undermined people’s psychological safety, leading to more anxiety and depression as well as the worsening of existing mental health conditions.”

Mental health emergency

The pandemic has fuelled the increase in mental health issues in a number of ways. Anxiety is commonplace, with pandemic-related worries including health, job security and money.

This anxiety is often adding to other issues, as Christine Husbands, managing director of RedArc, explains: “A relationship problem can become more challenging if it’s no longer possible to go to work or see friends, and if someone has a physical health issue, it can be worrying not to be able to see a GP or carry on with treatment.”

The merging of home and work life has also proved particularly challenging. Daisy Abbott, mental health technology specialist at workplace mental health platform Unmind, says that many people struggle to separate their roles as a person, an employee and a parent. “It’s just become one big melting pot,” she explains. “Switching off is so important: without this, everything from sleep to sense of achievement can be affected, with serious consequences for anxiety levels.”

Out of sight, out of mind

Another common side-effect of the pandemic is loneliness, especially during lockdown. Feelings of isolation also make bereavement harder, especially where it was impossible to say goodbye to a dying family member.

The pain associated with loss is likely to ripple out beyond the bereaved too. “People will experience grief as a result of the things they weren’t able to do, such as a birthday celebration or a child’s graduation,” says Charles Alberts, head of wellbeing solutions UK at Aon. “It’s affected a lot of people.”

Alongside this, remote working has made it harder for line managers to identify when an employee is struggling. A weekly catch-up by video call is a poor substitute for seeing someone every day and having an informal chat over a coffee. Alberts adds: “We’ve also seen employers pressing pause on occupational health referrals. In spite of the fact that more than 90% of assessments can be delivered remotely, there’s now a backlog.”

Long-term prognosis

While the lifting of restrictions will benefit many, the pandemic’s effect on mental health is expected to last long after the virus is under control.

Covid-19 (Coronavirus) itself can result in mental health issues. Depression and anxiety are symptoms of long Covid and there’s also the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, especially among survivors, their families and healthcare professionals.

People may also experience long-term mental health problems as they come to terms with their loss, whether that be of family members, their jobs or their health. Husbands also says there’s a risk of re-entry anxiety. “People have been working from home or furloughed for such a long time that it’s understandable that some will feel nervous about being alongside other people again,” she explains.

Job insecurity brings a further layer of concern. “When people are worried about their jobs, they tend not to put their hands up to say they’re struggling,” says Alberts. “They want to be seen as dependable employees and can end up working longer hours, potentially making things worse.”

Supporting employees

Given this, understanding the warning signs is an essential part of any support package. “Employees who are struggling with mental ill-health may become disengaged,” says Farrell. “They might not complete work on time, may become less creative and could take more time off sick.”

Line managers are in a good position to spot these warning signs. As well as training on how to manage people remotely, Alberts says it’s also important to give them permission to be more flexible with staff. “A much more personalised approach to people management is essential,” he says. “Employers need to trust line managers to make decisions and give them permission to do this.”

There are also plenty of tools that can support workplace mental health. EAPs, private medical insurance, group risk products and wellbeing platforms all provide support but Dan Crook, sales director, protection at Canada Life, says communication is essential. “Organisations need to make sure employees know what’s available and that it’s easy to access,” he explains. “A wellbeing app can also benefit their mental health, by encouraging them to make lifestyle and health improvements.”

A network of peer supporters, whether mental health first aiders or champions, also helps to strengthen messaging and provide additional resources and support for employees.

Return to work

The way organisations manage the transition back to normality later this year will also be critical for employee mental health. Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind, says it’s important that employers consult staff. “Employers should reflect on the unexpected benefits to staff morale and productivity that have resulted from working practices, such as working from home and flexible hours, developed in response to lockdown,” she adds.

Practical advice is also available. As an example, the Society of Occupational Medicine has developed a series of toolkits in association with organisations such as Mind, Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

Farrell also advocates a two-way process. “Organisations need to be honest and open with employees and allow them to express their concerns. It’s also good to be flexible, for example, why insist on going back to the old ways when it may be better for everyone if working hours are staggered?” he says. “Nobody knows what lies ahead but working through it together will give the best results. Organisations that do this well will be the employers of the future.”