21 May 2020
One of the key focus areas for wellbeing support during the COVID-19 outbreak is mental health. In this article, we take a look at the key trigger areas which have arisen due to the pandemic, how businesses can proactively mitigate these, and how employers could provide support for employees to help them manage their mental health.
First off, it’s important to recognise that the impact of COVID-19 on mental health is not yet fully known; there is a general acknowledgement that the pandemic will adversely affect mental health – with an anticipated rise in stress and anxiety. Although it is too early to determine the long-term impact, initial surveys support the hypothesis that there will be a significant detrimental impact on mental health; a survey by YoungMinds found that 83% of young people reported their mental health had worsened since the outbreak of the pandemic1. Additional research into the impact of the pandemic on mental health is currently underway; a study by the University of Glasgow in partnership with the Samaritans and the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) is looking at the long-term impact of COVID-19 on mental health, and will track 3,000 adults’ mental health and wellbeing for over six months. Studies such as these will invariably enable organisations to better respond and plan their support for employees.
However, based on existing research and the real-world consequences of socio-economic actions, we are still able to identify key areas which could trigger mental health issues.
With restrictions in place on social engagements and enforced social distancing, many people face an increased risk of temporary isolation. Social isolation can lead to heightened anxiety and depression, and persistent loneliness can have a detrimental effect on physical health – it can increase stress hormones, lower immune function and negatively impact cardiovascular function2. The experience of loneliness is inherently subjective, and some may feel lonely in a situation where others would not.
With an enforced switch to remote working for many, and more than four million furloughed workers3, there is a risk that as social interaction reduces, social isolation will increase. There is a clear link between loneliness and mental health; research has shown that people who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression4.
Employee networks can play a vital role in combatting loneliness. Virtual challenges, virtual coffee breaks, networking events and online team-building exercises can all help employees connect even when working remotely. Companies should be looking to encourage staff interaction, utilising the digital tools available (such as work social networks) and championing employee connections.
Although it is important to acknowledge that loneliness does not just impact those who live alone, there has been an increase in the number of one-person households in the UK. In 2019, the figure rose 8.2 million – an increase of a fifth since 1999 – and which equates to more than a third of households. Data on single-person households shows a demographic trend; averaged across age groups, 60% of those living alone are male (although the split is near-even for those aged 55+). Being alone and loneliness are two separate issues which are inherently interlinked. Living alone already has a significant impact on an individual’s wellbeing; those who live alone report the lowest personal wellbeing scores of all household types, and also have lower levels of disposable income than other households5. An increase in social isolation may additionally impact those who are already disadvantaged when it comes to wellbeing, and employers may want to provide further, targeted support for employees they know are not living with others.
In the UK, more than 70% of private firms have furloughed staff – with around 30% sending home between 75% and 100% of their workforce6. The financial impact on workers will be varied depending on personal situations, but it’s fair to assume that for many workers this will cause some level of financial stress. It’s an area where Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) can help provide support, whilst benefits communications can highlight discounts or available money management tools.
Anonymous surveys and focus groups can help employers get a clear picture of the impact any financial changes have had, as well as insight on how employees feel about any decrease in income. Even if a company has not made any changes to its employees pay, it is still worth undertaking a litmus test on how employees are faring financially. There may be increased living costs – such as bills and food from being at home 24/7 – or other adults in the household may have reduced income which is affecting them too.
Many workers in the UK face increased caring responsibilities as a result of the pandemic. As we recently reported, 1 in 7 workers could be impacted by lack of childcare. There is also a prominent ‘sandwich generation’ in the UK – people who care for both sick, disabled or older relatives and who also have dependent children. According to data from the Office for National Statistics, they are more likely to report symptoms of mental ill-health, feel less satisfied with life and struggle financially. More than 1.3 million people in the UK are sandwich carers, with those providing higher levels of care reporting lower levels of well-being. With vulnerable adults advised to self-isolate and children unable to attend school and nursery, there could be immense additional pressure on a population group who were already reporting lower levels of life and health satisfaction than the general population.
It’s an area where employer flexibility can alleviate logistical challenges. Facilitating different working hours or allowing employees to work across an extended day can both help employees juggle work and home life commitments. Employers can also check in with employees to see how they’re coping with their personal commitments, and communicate the relevant support available to them.
Managing mental health remotely
Although it may feel more challenging to support employees’ mental health whilst your workforce is working remotely – or not working at all – there are a plethora of tools available which employers can take advantage of. From mindfulness apps to wellbeing apps, technology is a fantastic enabler in helping employees manage their mental health. Peer-to-peer support can also help employees, with Mental Health First Aiders providing frontline support for employees who are struggling and need immediate support. Mental Health First Aid courses or similar, many of which can be run remotely, can be a useful starting point for businesses looking to form a peer support network. Finally, encouraging an open culture which doesn’t stigmatise or discriminate is key. Regular communication about mental health – signposting appropriate support – will help employees feel supported and help drive proactive action rather than reactive treatment. Like physical illnesses, treating mental illness proactively during the early stages delivers superior outcomes.
If your business needs support in supporting your employees’ mental health through these difficult times, please get in touch with our health management team.
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