Rachel Suff, Senior Policy Adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) outlines how employers can support the mental health of their staff during Covid-19.

The Covid-19 pandemic presents an enormous challenge for employers in how they protect their employees from infection. The imminent threat to people’s health is physical, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that the health risk is also psychological. How we live our lives has changed overnight, and there is no one who is unaffected by this health crisis. The lockdown and need for social distancing to help prevent the spread of infection is vital but most people’s daily routines have been very disrupted by it. This has far reaching consequences for the quality of people’s mental well-being.

The pandemic has had an uneven impact on employees’ work situation, depending on the type of work and role they perform. Most office workers have shifted to full-time homeworking, for example, while frontline health and social care workers perform a vital role in the front line. There are many others who are deemed ‘essential workers’ and also carry on their job outside the home. 

Many workers are therefore under intense pressure at this time, depending on their individual circumstances. Some will be understandably be worried about themselves or loved ones catching the virus, particularly if someone is in one of the higher-risk groups that the Government has identified. There is additional pressure if an individual has caring responsibilities for an older or more vulnerable relative. Similarly, if someone has young children who can’t go to school there is additional pressure to keep them entertained and content when that person may be juggling a job at the same time. Financial worry about loss of income or job can contribute another cause of stress for many.

We all live busy and complex lives normally, but the fear and anxiety caused by the pandemic will have placed intense pressure on some. If someone already has a mental health condition, or is living in a domestic abuse situation, that pressure could be intolerable.

There is therefore increasing awareness of the need to support people’s mental, as well as their physical, health during and after the pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) says: ‘this time of crisis is generating stress throughout the population’ and people who are affected by the virus ‘deserve our support, compassion and kindness.’ The UK Government recently made an announcement covering new advice and funding to help people with their mental health during the Covid-19 outbreak, including online support.

There were already significant challenges around managing people’s mental health at work. The CIPD, in partnership with Simplyhealth, has recently launched its latest annual survey report on health and well-being. The findings underline what we already know, that the main threat to people’s health at work is psychological. The study also shows that three-fifths (60 per cent) of HR respondents reported an increase in common mental health conditions (like anxiety or depression) among their workforce over the past 12 months. The Covid-19 pandemic will worsen these conditions for many and is another compelling argument for organisations to urgently review the mental health support they provide for employees.

The research also shows that too few organisations are training line managers to ensure they have the skills and confidence to support their team’s mental health. And so we are not surprised that just three in ten (31%) agree that managers are ‘confident to have sensitive discussions and signpost staff to expert sources of help if needed’. Even fewer (25%) agree that they ‘are confident and competent to spot the early warning signs of mental ill health.’

Managers have a very important part to play in supporting people’s mental well-being. They should not be regarded as health experts but they have day-to-day interaction with their team members and so should be in a position to spot any early warning signs of stress or distress, be able to have empathetic conversations where needed, and signpost individuals to more expert sources of support where necessary.

Managing people, and their health and well-being, can be a challenging role – and there is a lot of responsibility on managers right now. Their own mental well-being could be jeopardised if they are not given the ongoing support and guidance they need in this area.

During – and after – this pandemic, the CIPD is encouraging all organisations to:  

  • Support and guide line managers so that they feel equipped to have sensitive and supportive discussions with staff  
  • Remind managers about the importance of communicating regularly with their team and asking how they are.  
  • Encourage staff to practise self-care such as a healthy routine for diet, sleep and relaxation 
  • Promote existing health and well-being benefits and support, for example signposting people to their counselling helpline. 

The following resources could be helpful:

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Rachel Suff, Senior Policy Adviser at the CIPD outlines how employers can support the mental health of their staff during Covid-19.

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