Mental health issues have been on the rise long before COVID-19. The World Health Organisation (WHO) predicted back in 2012 that depression would be the leading cause of disability and ill health by 2030.
But there’s absolutely no doubt that the emotional and psychological impacts of both the Coronavirus and the subsequent lockdown have taken their toll on the nation’s mental health. While experts and specialists warn of a looming mental health crisis, there are also growing concerns of a rise in suicide rates.
Both the British Medical Association (BMA) and the Samaritans have raised concerns. Speaking to Cover magazine in July, BMA mental health policy lead Dr Andrew Molodynski warned that mental health services were ‘already on the backfoot’ having been underfunded and under resourced, making the prospect of coping with the potential avalanche in demand ‘extremely concerning’.
The Samaritans too warned that rates of suicide often increase during times of recession and called for ‘vigilance’ as the nation moves into particularly difficult economic times.
Certainly, there have been early indicators of a potential increase in those taking their own lives. In April, the Health Service Journal reported on an ‘unprecedented’ government-endorsed suicide prevention plan amid concerns over increases of suicide during the COVID-19 crisis. And in May, the Zero Suicide Alliance, a collaboration of NHS trusts, charities and businesses revealed that half a million people had accessed their free suicide prevention training since the outbreak.
Speaking at the Home Affairs Committee into mental health earlier this year, Sergeant Simon Kempton, The Police Federation’s lead for coronavirus said there had been “very early indications” of an increase in suicide attempts and those taking their own life.
Charles Alberts, head of health management at Aon, points to the additional challenges which have risen as a result of COVID-19: social isolation during lockdown, dramatic life changes, increased anxiety and depression and financial worries. But he says, it’s important for employers not to make any assumptions as everyone’s circumstances are different, and what’s going on at home isn’t always apparent. Where an employer may not have made any redundancies in their organisation, employee’s partners or family members may have experienced a drop in income while additional caring responsibilities may be taking a toll on peoples’ general wellbeing.
“There’s also a whole lot of anxiety around lockdown and becoming ill too,” says Alberts. “Lockdown may have eased but many people are fearful about going out and we are not yet able to re-engage socially as before.”
Employers should be forewarned and prepared
Employers, says Alberts, must now be ‘forewarned and prepared’ so they are ready to manage any increases in psychological distress among their workforce.
“We need to recognise there is a mental health crisis looming and unfortunately there is an expectation of an increase in suicide rates. Employers may not see an obvious increase in psychological distress right away, and most situations won’t lead to suicide, but if there was ever a time for employers to take proactive action, that time is now.”
Suicide has a devastating impact on everyone it touches. Not just the individual’s family and friends, but co-workers, too. Alberts believes employers have a vital role to play in being alert to the mental wellbeing of their colleagues: being proactive to notice any behaviour changes and providing the right kind of support for those struggling.
How employers can help
So what should employers be doing to ensure they are doing enough to support their employees who may be living with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts?
Alberts says employers need to focus on three key areas: workplace culture, training (such as mental health first aid) and communicating relevant benefits and support services.
“Employers need to create the right culture so people feel it’s OK to ask for help if they’re struggling,” he explains. “It boils down to fostering a good work environment to destigmatise mental health issues. It should be an environment which values employees and their families and one where employees support each other and know where to go for help.”
It’s a vital, long-term approach and not something that can be changed overnight, although it’s never too late to start. For those employers wanting to kickstart their health and wellbeing journey, Alberts recommends including senior management in health and wellbeing initiatives as much as possible. Senior leaders, says Alberts, ‘can set the tone’ for the entire organisation, so encouraging them to talk about mental health to ‘open up the conversation’ for instance at the beginning of training sessions or in company meetings can help destigmatise it.
Mental health training is also essential. Alberts recommends mental health training and education for all colleagues to cover at least basic knowledge of mental health as well as general suicide prevention awareness, with more focused training for those volunteering in roles such as mental health first aiders and suicide prevention first aiders.
The importance of line managers
Yet it’s line managers and those trained in roles such as mental health first aiders who have big role to play in any workplace suicide prevention initiative. Line managers, by their very nature, know their individual team members the best and can be one of the first to identify any behaviour changes or warning signs. But, says Alberts, their job in monitoring the wellbeing of co-workers and team members has now become much more difficult. With many people still working remotely, there aren’t quite as many in-person social interactions as before.
“But that doesn’t mean there aren’t solutions ,” Alberts insists. “It’s more important than ever to be proactive. Especially mental health first aiders need to put themselves out there so people know about their role and how to contact them if and when there is a need.”
Communication is essential
A lot of this boils down to effective communication and a consistent, accessible approach to signposting health and wellbeing benefits and services available to colleagues. Employers and HR must remind colleagues what’s on offer, both internally and externally, whether it’s access to an EAP or support through PMI provider, helpline numbers to ring, a recommendation of relevant charities or signposting to workplace mental health first aiders.
Yet this comes with a warning: employers should take care not to overwhelm colleagues with a myriad of resources, most of which can be forgotten about during times of crisis. Instead, Alberts recommends distilling all the information into easily accessible, visual information with practical reminders throughout the year.
Employee Assistance Programmes
According to Alberts, Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) in particular are one of the most underutilised resources for those in crisis which Alberts puts down to a general confusion about what an EAP actually is and how it can help.
“EAPs are really valuable resources and provide round-the-clock confidential support especially for those in crisis,” says Alberts. “But EAPs are one of the most underutilised benefits. Across many organisations we see that on average only around 5 – 10 per cent of employees actually use the EAP.” While some organisations have reported significant increases in EAP usage since the outbreak, others have reported no change. The answer, says Alberts, is to promote EAPs in very practical ways.
“Workplace communications can list typical problems employees might be struggling with and remind people that EAPs can help. ‘Are you struggling with X, Y or Z? Your EAP can help.’”
Alberts insists that contrary to popular belief, more calls to EAPs is a good sign rather than reflective of a bad workplace culture: “It means employees are reaching out for help rather than bottling up their problems and that’s definitely encouraging.”
Continuous support through health and wellbeing initiatives
Finally, Alberts reemphasises the need for continuous, long-term health and wellbeing initiatives which addresses mental health all year round, not just on one or two key awareness days.
All communications should reinforce the messages of where employees can go to for help and support, with reminders of what’s coming up next in the workplace health and wellbeing programme. Creating a structure in this way develops expectation and familiarity, so colleagues are less likely to feel overwhelmed with information and will always know where and who to turn to for help.
But, as Alberts points out, even with all these initiatives and preventative measures, unfortunately suicide is a reality that employers may encounter. But the role employers, line managers and volunteers can play should not be underestimated. And in many cases, workplace support can and does save lives.
“Suicide is the extreme end of the mental health spectrum, but every suicide can be prevented. No life should be lost to suicide. The health and wellbeing measures employers put in place today could save lives tomorrow.”
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