Coronavirus and Mental Health at Work

Caucasian depressed man at home. Mental health

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?

What Are an Employer’s Legal Responsibilities?

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.

Working from Home

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:

  • Setting up effective communication systems – this could mean investing in a team working platform such as Slack or setting core work hours so that there is always support available during part of the day.
  • Keep in regular contact – setting up a weekly one-to-one or team Zoom meeting will prevent people from feeling isolated and unsupported. Daily company email updates are a simple and effective way to keep everyone “in the loop”.
  • Identify vulnerable workers – remote working may exacerbate existing mental health issues. Make sure that vulnerable employees have a point of contact and access to appropriate support, such as an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) that provides counselling.
  • Provide equipment and IT support – trying to meet deadlines and targets on a clunky old laptop that keeps breaking down or lacks up-to-date software is a sure-fire way to evoke stress and anxiety. If you’re expecting people to work remotely, make sure they have access to suitable office equipment and IT support.
  • Don’t forget the importance of socialising – set up a buddy system and encourage people to check in with one another each day or schedule a Friday post-work quiz online. People who are used to a being surrounded by their colleagues in a busy office every day may quickly feel isolated and depressed with no social interaction.
  • Encourage a work-life balance – if your team has ready access to their work 24/7, they may struggle to switch off. Implement a policy of not sending work emails outside of office hours and make it clear that people are not expected to work beyond their contracted hours.


Furloughed Workers

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:

  • Communicate regularly – furloughed employees may feel worried about being out of touch and missing out on important company developments. They may also be concerned about redundancy. Stay in contact with furloughed workers and keep them updated on developments in the company and plans for recovering from the current crisis. Include them in any online social events.
  • Encourage training and personal development – if you are unable to bring a furloughed employee back to work or can only offer part-time hours (as permitted under the scheme since 1 July), encourage them to use their time to upskill. Provide training courses and resources, set goals and arrange feedback sessions. This will reassure the employee that the company is invested in them and help to reduce their fears of falling behind.
  • Set up a network of furloughed workers – buddy up furloughed workers either with each other or with non-furloughed team members. This provides an informal support system that will help employees feel part of the team. They can also share their experiences with colleagues in the same situation.

Returning to Work

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.

employee returning to work


The Chartered Institute of Personal Development (CIPD) urges businesses to ensure they meet three key tests before asking people to return to work:

  • Is it essential?
  • Is it sufficiently safe?
  • Is it mutually agreed?

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.

If you need help conducting a risk assessment that takes into account the mental wellbeing of your workers, get in touch with Howlett Health and Safety Services.

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