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Employee mental health and wellbeing during coronavirus

Updated: Feb 16

On 31st October, the government announced that, following increases in the rates of COVID-19 infections, a new lockdown would come into force in England from 5th November.

Although not quite as sweeping as the March lockdown, restrictions are significant and:

  • require people to stay at home, except for specific purposes;

  • prevent people gathering with those they do not live with, except for specific purposes;

  • close certain businesses and venues.

It is intended that these new measures will apply nationally for 4 weeks up to 2nd December.

What this means for employers and employees is that, once again, many thousands of people are going to be working remotely. Their social interaction will be limited and they will need once again to get used to a new way of working.

Although the government has extended the furlough period to March 2021 and has introduced measures to support people affected by the new restrictions, there will still be a significant level of stress and anxiety about what is happening and what may happen in the future. This may go on to have a detrimental effect on people’s mental health.

So, what can employers do?

Regular open communication with staff is key. Employers and managers should regularly check in with their staff to make sure they are okay and allow them the opportunity to discuss any concerns. Communications about the coronavirus outbreak and its implications should be concise, consistent and unambiguous - particularly where there is concern regarding the possibility of furlough and what this means for employees. Employers and managers should be empathetic with employees concerned about financial stress or job security. Providing regular updates and consultation is important to ensuring clear communication and reassurance during this difficult time.

Employees should also be reminded to take regular breaks as they would at the workplace. Employees should also be reminded to try and keep a separation between work and personal lives, such as by having their workstation set up in a secluded room of their house, where they can walk away at the end of the day and not be reminded of emails, projects or deadlines. Although staff may want to, staff should be discouraged from working all day and night, as this will not be healthy for their physical or mental health.

Where employees may already be dealing with mental health problems such as depression, OCD or anxiety, these may be exacerbated due to the current uncertainty over coronavirus and its implications. A mental health condition is considered a disability if it has a long-term effect on an individual’s normal everyday activity. The Equality Act 2010 requires employers to avoid discrimination and make reasonable adjustments to ensure people with disabilities are not disadvantaged in the workplace. If an employee has a mental health condition that is considered to be a disability under the Equality Act 2010, they should be encouraged to communicate with their employer to find reasonable adjustments that may work for them. Examples of reasonable adjustments may include:

  • Giving the staff member time off for therapy or treatment.

  • Providing a regular contact or ‘buddy’ for the person to talk with about their issues and how it affects their work.

  • Allowing a flexible approach to start and finish times.

  • Regular breaks if the employee begins to feel overwhelmed.

Employers should ask the employee themselves in the first instance what adjustments would assist them, rather than the employer making the initial suggestions. The employer can decide if the adjustment proposed is reasonable and something the organisation could accommodate. When considering what is ‘reasonable’, whilst this is not specifically stated in the Equality Act 2010, on the 6th April 2011 the EHRC's Employment Code of Practice came into force. That Code suggests some 'factors which might be taken into account when deciding what is a reasonable step for an employer to have to take', which is a list similar to that originally contained in section 18B(1) of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (the pre-Equality Act 2010 legislation):

  • whether taking any particular steps would be effective in preventing the substantial disadvantage

  • the practicability of the step

  • the financial and other costs of making the adjustment and the extent of any disruption caused

  • the extent of the employer’s financial or other resources

  • the availability to the employer of financial or other assistance to help make an adjustment such as advice through Access to Work

  • the type and size of the employer

The organisation may already have resources to help employees with their mental health and the employer should encourage their employees to access these services. These services could include talking to a mental health first aider, talking to Occupational Health or seeking help from an Employee Assistance Programme. The employer mas also find it appropriate to encourage the employee to seek support from other sources outside of the workplace, such as from friends or family.

Typically, employers could also encourage employees to visit their GP if they were experiencing a mental health issue. In light of the present lockdown guidelines however getting out of the house to visit GPs, especially if a person has coronavirus symptoms, is not feasible. The Government guidelines dictate that people must not visit their GP or A&E hospital. Employers should therefore encourage employees experiencing mental health issues to contact their GP via telephone or similar mental health phoneline such as Samaritans or Mind.

In addition to regularly communicated with employees themselves, employers and managers should also encourage colleagues to continue interacting with each other as they would in the workplace.

Loneliness can have a major effect on employees mental health, particularly during isolation, so it is essential that employees feel they can talk to others. To ensure connection with others is possible, employers should ensure their staff have access to make phone calls or video conferencing through services such as zoom, skype or Microsoft teams. The employer could organise a quizzes, yoga sessions or informal coffee catch ups that could be held on a weekly basis. It is essential that manager regularly call their team to see how they are doing and how they can help each other.

Employers should point employees to official guidance and share reputable sources from:

Employers should try not to share or encourage employees to share other articles and information. There are a lot of media and social media discussions that are based on a rapidly evolving field of research. It is best practice to follow reliable sources for official communications.

Employers should implement an ‘open door’ policy and foster a culture whereby employees feel able to talk about their mental health and difficulties they are facing during this uncertain time.

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