In recognition of the Public Health England mental health campaign, Every Mind Matters, Natalie Rogers, HR Director at Unum has shared ways employers can and should protect staff mental health in their phased return to work.
Protecting mental health in the post-Covid 19 workplace
The events of the past few months have affected everyone. Whether employees have been working from home, furloughed or key workers supporting others and keeping the country going, everyone has faced their own challenges. But as we come to terms with a new way of life, the impact on our mental health is still unclear.
Natalie Rogers, Unum HR Director commented “As we emerge from lockdown, the mental health pressures on employees will change. After dealing with the challenge of social distancing and being separated from colleagues, the thought of returning to the office, getting back on public transport, or coming off furlough could be overwhelming. They are likely to experience a whole range of emotions from excitement and optimism to anger and anxiety. Whatever an employee’s situation, the challenges of the last months will have had an impact. Dealing with new ways of working or even not working at all, only make up part of the picture. People have also had to cope with their whole lives changing literally overnight. Juggling childcare and work, being separated from loved ones and dealing with financial pressures are just some of the issues they have had to face.”
Feeling more isolated
Even before the pandemic, levels of loneliness were already worryingly high. Somewhere between 6% and 18% of the UK population reported often feeling lonely– something which can have a significant impact on both mental and physical health. Since lockdown, the number of UK adults who say they often or always feel lonely has risen to 25%. With over 90% of the workforce saying they’d like to continue working from home at least some of the time after the restrictions are lifted, employers need to consider what this could mean for their employees’ mental health. While working from home avoids a potentially time-consuming commute and can help improve the work/life balance, it can be easy to feel detached and isolated.
Increased alcohol consumption
One of the side-effects of lockdown has been an increase in our alcohol intake. According to Action on Addiction, a quarter of adults were drinking more in June than before March. Regardless whether this was a way of dealing with boredom, or raised levels of anxiety and stress, 15% of those who are drinking more said they were experiencing problems, including having issues with work. Employers need to be aware of these shifts in behaviour and ensure employees know where to turn if they’re struggling with drink.
Fear of meeting people
Since lockdown began, official messaging has emphasised the need to stay at home and avoid contact with people as much as possible. Even as restrictions ease and more places open, we’re told to stay alert against an invisible threat. The consequences of venturing out and leaving the safety of home can feel immense, especially to those either with underlying health issues or who have a vulnerable family member. Many employees may be worried about returning to work and being alongside colleagues again. After spending so long in a safe and comfortable environment, many will fear the uncertainty of what their workplace will be like, being surrounded by people again and worry about how they’ll keep themselves safe. It’s important that employers recognise this and put plans in place to effectively support the mental health and wellbeing of their employees – both for now and the months to come.
Tips for employers and leaders
- Encourage employees to be proactive and look after their own wellbeing, while reminding them that your door’s always open if they need support.
- Look for any changes in their behaviour or signs that they might be struggling – early intervention can prevent a problem from becoming a long-term issue.
- Consider mental health training to equip line managers with the skills to spot and support an employee who may be having difficulties.
- Clearly communicate the safety measures that have been introduced to make the workplace Covid-19 safe and ensure employees understand the guidelines in place.
- Keep talking to employees, be honest about your plans and acknowledge the concern that’s likely to exist.
- Good work is good for mental health – provide employees with clear objectives and directions so they know exactly what is expected of them.
- Highlight to employees what mental health support is available, such as an Employee Assistance Programme. Clearly communicate how they can access the service and emphasise it will be confidential.