Employee mental health and the coronavirus
As the coronavirus crisis dominates the headlines, and businesses across the UK respond to the implications of a UK lockdown, we have seen very challenging times over the past few weeks. With jobs potentially on the line, and workers concerned about their health and that of their loved ones, it is likely they are being placed under increased levels of stress and even seeing the development of more serious mental health conditions. Now more than ever it is important that employers are aware of the signs of poor mental health and are ready to respond to this. Such a response may be as simple as encouraging staff to come forward if they are struggling, but this could be extended into an evaluation of their working conditions and making key changes to business operations.
Spotting the signs of mental ill health
Employees struggling with their mental health are more likely to make mistakes in their work, become irritable with colleagues and management and take an increased number of sick days. Staff who always seemed reliable before may suddenly start to make mistakes that are out of character for them, or even commit acts of misconduct. While some of these signs may seem obvious, they can at times be harder to spot, especially if staff are working from home.
For many employers, managing homeworking is a completely new area for them and there are certain issues they should look out for. While some members of staff may be quite happy to work from home, for others it could prove more challenging. For homeworkers, it may be difficult to separate work life from home life, especially when they both take place in the same area. Some may even start to feel lonely without the commute and the company of colleagues. This could lead to individuals becoming far less active and feel more negative as a result, especially those who usually walk or cycle to work every morning.
Steps a company can take
For those who are still going into work during the coronavirus crisis, it is essential that employers observe staff and strongly encourage them to come forward with any concerns they may have. It is also important to remain flexible in responding to these situations; although it may be disruptive if there are issues in how an individual is working, consider their situation and why they may be acting the way they are. It is harder to keep an eye on staff if they are now working from home. However, employers who have a large number of homeworkers on the books should maintain regular contact with them. If there are issues in their work, it may be that they are struggling with this new arrangement and the organisation could need to consider alternatives, such as placing them on furlough, if possible.
Staff who are struggling during this crisis should also be referred to any third-party counselling services that the organisation offers, such as an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). EAPs can offer advice and assistance to those who may have personal and professional issues and may prove invaluable during this time. The company could also consider introducing a mental health first aider for staff to reach out to if they are struggling, who can signpost them to further support offered by the business.
Other options the company could consider to help homeworkers are:
• regularly checking in on them, at least once every hour at first, to ask how they are doing and if the company can help
• setting up a group channel through the use of Microsoft Teams or WhatsApp so everyone can stay in touch in real-time
• encouraging people to work within the hours they should; if it comes to the attention of management that people are working beyond their hours, it should be made clear that they’re not expected to
• reward and reassure staff, making sure they know that they’re just as valued wherever they might be.
Tips for avoiding anxiety
Alongside specific steps that can be taken by the company, staff could also be advised of ways they can manage their own mental health during the crisis. Employee should be encouraged to avoid watching the news for prolonged periods of time and make sure they are getting periods of fresh air, provided they adhere to social distancing guidelines. They should also take steps to eat healthily and avoid snacking habits arising while working.
Regular contact should be kept with colleagues, friends and family during periods of isolation, and employees should feel they can come forward with issues if need be. For staff working at home, they should be told to set themselves clear work structures and not pick up tasks outside of this. Guidance should be given on ideal workspaces that do not breach health and safety requirements. If staff have caring commitments due to school closures, employers should, where possible, be flexible with their hours.
The ongoing coronavirus situation is difficult for everyone and it currently remains unclear how long it will last. To this end, employers should prepare for all issues that could potentially arise as a result. It should be remembered that mental illness is considered a disability under equality law and, if poorly managed, can lead to a number of problems for a company.
Government consults on how workplaces can reopen
Trade unions and employer organisations have been asked for their views on a draft Government plan setting out how and when anti-coronavirus restrictions can be relaxed so that more people can return to work.
The Prime Minister is expected to reveal the full plan on Sunday 10 May, once the Government has taken account of reactions to the draft and of the latest evidence of the spread of infection.
Although the draft plan has not been made publicly available, it is understood that it includes measures such as maintaining as much home working as possible while introducing staggered shift times to avoid the pre-pandemic rush hours.
Employers will be expected to carry out risk assessments before reopening their premises and will need to consider introducing special hygiene measures (including reducing the use of equipment by more than one person), physical screens and increased use of personal protective equipment (PPE) if social distancing in the workplace is difficult.
Regular testing is also reported to be part of the Government strategy.
Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, speaking at the daily Downing Street briefing, said there would be “a phased approach which allows us to monitor the impact that those changes are having on public health”.
Speaking for the CBI, Deputy Director General Josh Hardie recognised that health must be the priority in any planned return to work.
“Restart should also be phased,” he said, “built on the enablers of revival: schools, transport and testing, and underpinned by a new wave of economic support. It can be the start of economic renewal — with a shared determination to build-in sustainability and fairness to a long-term vision.”
However, a warning note was struck by the leaders of the main rail unions who have written to the Prime Minister, the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales, and Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, saying this is not the time to lift the lockdown and run more trains.
The letter points out that there is no agreement on how services can be increased while protecting workers and passengers. This includes protections through social distancing, adequate and appropriate PPE, and determination of essential and non-essential tasks.
“We will not accept new working patterns that put the lives of railway workers and passengers at risk, the leaders of ASLEF, RMT and TSSA said. “To be clear — we are not convinced that there is any basis at this time for a safe escalation of services.”