The Government’s Office for Health Improvement and Disparities recently published its updated Covid-19 mental health and wellbeing surveillance report. This report looks at population mental health and wellbeing in England during the coronavirus pandemic. Its information is used when deciding on policy, planning and commissioning in health and social care. However, individual organisations can also benefit from the findings of the report and use these to develop their own HR strategies.
Whilst the report contains an abundance of data on a number of differing factors and considerations, some key conclusions can be extracted which will most interest employers. Firstly, some groups of people were more likely to experience poor or deteriorating mental health during the pandemic. These include women, young adults (aged between 18–34), adults with pre-existing mental or physical health conditions, adults experiencing loss of income or employment, adults in deprived neighbourhoods and some ethnic minority populations. However, women and young people, people with lower levels of education and people living with children, following initial deterioration, also reported greater improvements and recoveries in mental health when case numbers had fallen and lockdowns were eased. This being said, many still experience ongoing difficulties with their mental health.
The report found the effect of the pandemic on mental health has been particularly pronounced for those working in professional and technical industries, hospitality, customer service occupations, small employers and the self-employed, as well as female workers. Such industries should consider strategies for avoiding burnout and to improve retention, as it is likely these are subsequent issues they now face.
Significantly, long-term mental health struggles were highest amongst younger people, women, people living without a partner, those who had no work or lost income, and those with previous health conditions or Covid-19 symptoms. As such, employers should ensure there is adequate support in place for these staff members. The provision of an employee assistance programme (EAP), introduction of mental health first aiders, offering of flexible working arrangements and dedicated paid wellbeing or “duvet days” can go a long way to effectively assisting those experiencing increased psychological distress.
As we move into a “living with Covid” society, more information is becoming available on the impact of long Covid on employees’ mental health and emotional wellbeing. Research found that many people with long Covid feel a sense of shame, guilt and reduced self-worth associated with returning to work. It also found that those with long Covid had concerns about functional difficulties (ie not being able to function at previous levels) and that those difficulties may not be visible to other.
Ongoing support for staff with long Covid
Where employers are aware their employee has been absent with long Covid, they should ensure regular welfare meetings are conducted so they are kept up to date with how they are feeling and what support measures would be of most benefit to them. The Equality and Human Rights Commission said employers should presume those suffering with long Covid are protected as having a disability under the Equality Act to avoid the risk of discrimination or unfair dismissal claims being raised. Therefore, employers should consider what reasonable adjustments should be implemented to better support them in the workplace. This may be adjusting performance targets, amending working days or hours, providing longer or more frequent rest breaks, or assigning lighter duties.
Support for working parents
The findings of the report showed that working parents had higher psychological distress than those without children. This was associated with increased financial insecurity and time spent on childcare and home schooling. The burden of such responsibilities was also not shared equally between men and women, or between richer and poorer households. It was found that women were more likely to have made larger adjustments than men to manage housework and childcare; this contributed to increased distress.
Arguably, the reason women were more adversely affected than men is because of disproportionate support from employers. Effective support for male employees has been linked to improved working conditions and job opportunities for female equivalents who have the same knowledge and qualifications but are overlooked for progression opportunities due to taking time off for familial responsibilities. Some organisations have created a culture whereby they are disapproving of males who must care for their child or other relatives, but an environment such as this heightens disparity in the workplace; this should be avoided to create equal opportunities.
Instead, employers can consider offering flexible working arrangements, such as homeworking or hybrid working options; flexi-hours to allow for late starts or early finishes; or temporary reductions in working hours or duties. Additionally, employers may wish to consider enhancing paternity and parental leave entitlements and encouraging shared parental leave to create a more open and balanced approach for working parents. When leveraged successfully, the positive impact on the organisation as a whole cannot be understated.
Mental health and furlough
A 2020 study found that furlough protected mental health in people with long-term insecure jobs. On average, furloughed workers in long-term insecure jobs before and during the first national lockdown reported no increase in mental distress, unlike counterparts who had not been furloughed. A later study from 2021 suggests that those who were furloughed were likely to report some level of deterioration in mental health, although, on average, of lesser intensity, compared to those who either became or remained unemployed. Those in stable employment had the least risk for deterioration in mental health.
Since the furlough scheme has now ended, employees in insecure jobs may once again feel increased levels of emotional distress, especially following analysis that nearly one fifth (18%) of employers plan to make redundancies in the next 12 months. Transparency with the workforce can remove unnecessary anxiety over the unknown in these situations.
In recent years, businesses have become more aware and understanding of the importance of having a culture of open communication and compassion. The Covid pandemic heightened employers’ responsibilities to adequately care for their employees’ mental health and emotional wellbeing. Those who failed to put effective measures in place suffered from high staff turnover and increased burnout-related absences due to their people feeling overwhelmed and undervalued. However, more can still be done. Introducing mental health first aiders and providing empathy and emotional intelligence training to managers can be a great first step in breaking the stigma associated with mental health. Similarly, employers should proactively develop initiatives to encourage open communication and non-judgmental discussion platforms. This includes the provision of robust policies and procedures and a zero-tolerance stance against any mental health-related bullying, discrimination or harassment.