The first confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK were on January 29, 2020. Since then, we have experienced significant changes in how we live our lives both at work and at home. Many people have had to work from home for the first time, others have been furloughed and an increasing number are finding themselves without a job to return to. Unsurprisingly, these changes are taking a toll on the nation’s workforce. According to a survey by mental health charity Mind, 65% of adults with an existing mental health problem have seen this get worse during lockdown and 22% of adults have experienced “poor” or “very poor” mental health for the first time.
How can employers protect their people from mental health issues during the pandemic and do they have an obligation to do so?
Employers have a legal responsibility to implement health and safety strategies that protect their workforce and anyone else who might come into contact with their business (such as suppliers and customers). They must do what is “reasonably practicable” to achieve this.
Every business should have up-to-date risk assessments that identify and address any hazards that might cause people harm in the workplace. This includes taking steps to protect employees from anything that could negatively impact their mental health.
Some mental health illnesses constitute a disability, which is one of the nine “protected characteristics” under the Equality Act 2010. The law prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the grounds of these characteristics.
This means that employers must protect employees from harm to their mental health and that they cannot treat employees suffering from a mental illness differently from their peers.
According to a study by Opinium in May 2020, 69% of British adults are now working from home at least some of the time compared to just 9% before Covid-19. While many people love the thought of ditching the commute and working in their pyjamas, others have struggled to adapt to the loneliness and isolation. The current crisis has forced people to work from home who may never have done so before. If not well-managed and supported, this could lead to a dip in mental health.
Employers and managers can help team members who are new to remote working by:
Furloughed workers may be at an increased risk of mental health problems due to the uncertainty of their situation. For many people, this may be the first time they have not been working for years. We are creatures of habit and losing our normal routine can be disorienting and anxiety making.
You can help by:
Employees who have been working remotely or furloughed for months, should not be expected to snap straight back to their old routines.
HR teams must work with their employees to agree on a return-to-work process that suits the individual’s needs and those of the company. For some this may mean a phased return, for others it could mean additional support during their first few weeks back at work.
The Chartered Institute of Personal Development (CIPD) urges businesses to ensure they meet three key tests before asking people to return to work:
Rushing someone back to work who is anxious about how safe it is to return to the office could have a detrimental effect on their mental health. Successful businesses recognise the link between growth and profit, and employee wellbeing. Investing in a well-considered return to work will keep your people healthy, happy and motivated.
For many people, the coronavirus has transformed their working life, making it almost unrecognisable to their “normal” routine. With careful planning, management and support, employers can protect their people from the potential negative impact of these changes on their mental health.