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Employee mental health and wellbeing during the Coronavirus outbreak

One of the unexpected results of the coronavirus lockdown was the psychological effect on those who had to start working from home. From a bustling workplace full of noise, familiar faces, routine and stimulation to the family home, with laptop and screen set up on a desk in a spare room and the only communication with colleagues via videoconferencing. Add to this the extremely limited opportunities for social interaction, with friends and some family members off limits and the worry about infection and financial security and it is clear that mental stressors have increased significantly. What effect is this having on the wellbeing of employees, and what can employers do to help?


The risks


The body’s natural reaction to stress is to release cortisol, but prolonged exposure to this can have significant negative effects, such as:


  • Chronic illnesses, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease

  • Weight gain

  • Fatigue

  • “Foggy brain”, and difficulty with memory and focus

  • Compromises to the immune system

  • Problems with digestion

  • Mood disorders, including depression and anxiety

  • Sleep problems


All of these problems can increase stress and more cortisol is released – a vicious circle.


The effects of poor wellbeing on employees can include a decrease in productivity, morale and an increase in sickness absence. This can lead to retention problems, a loss of talent from the workforce and, of course, an increased workload for those who remain.


The new normal


It is very likely that the majority of employees have not previously worked remotely before, and therefore employers should offer help and assistance to help them settle into this new way of working. Employers must provide the equipment and software to make this possible. Not everyone is tech-aware and patience may be required where people are initially adjusting; for example, the employer may notice an initial lack of productivity during this period.


Keeping in touch


Regular communication with employees is key. Employers should implement an ‘open door’ policy and foster a culture where employees feel able to talk about their concerns, their mental health and difficulties they are facing.


Communications about the pandemic 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 should be sympathetic with employees concerned about financial stress or job security. Providing regular updates and consultation is important to ensure clear communication and reassurance and will prevent rumours from starting and spreading.


Childcare


The closure of schools across the UK means that many employees will be juggling childcare and work as well as home schooling requirements. This can be stressful, particularly if they have no dedicated space in which to work, so employers should offer support where possible - for example, offering flexible start and end times to allow parents to settle their children into their schoolwork. Employers should remind employees that they can use parental leave or annual leave where they feel that they need it, such as during half-term times.


Switching off


Something that has been noted in those working from home is an inability to switch off at the end of the working day. The line between work and home life becomes highly permeable and eventually blurs altogether.


Employees should be encouraged to try and keep a separation between work and personal lives, such as 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, they should be discouraged from working all day and night, as this will not be good for their physical or mental health.


Without the regular routine of the workplace to keep time, it can be easy to forget to take regular breaks and this prolonged lack of movement can cause musculoskeletal problems and eyestrain.

Mental health and legislation


Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, employers have a legal duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees while at work. Included within that duty is the minimisation of stress-related injury or illness. The duty of care extends to all employees, regardless of where they are working.


Employers should therefore think about implementing plans to protect their workforce.

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 to 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.


Healthcare resources


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 may also find it appropriate to encourage the employee to seek support from other sources outside the workplace, such as 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. 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.


Interaction


In addition to regular communications with employees, employers should 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. This can include colleagues who have been furloughed as this will not count as work-related activity.


Employers should ensure their staff have the means to make phone calls or video conferencing through services such as Zoom, Skype or Microsoft Teams. The employer could organise quizzes or informal coffee catch-ups that could be held on a weekly basis.

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Looking for more advice or guidance on this matter, or any other business-related issue?

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