23 April 2020
In the weeks since the UK government advised that employees should work from home where possible, the world of work has – at least for the time being – significantly changed. The strategies and support that employers were offering before the coronavirus pandemic may no longer be appropriate or providing the support that’s most needed.
We take a look at the core areas where employers can provide proactive support for employees in these unsettling times.
Invariably, the current situation could cause or exacerbate poor mental health – a WHO report from 2005 which looked at pandemics and mental health stated the conditions of a pandemic “lead to a high psychosocial risk”. The report cites that during a pandemic, the psychological and social impacts can manifest as:
When considering how to provide mental health support to employees, it is important to acknowledge that there will be varying responses to the COVID-19 crisis. There are numerous vulnerable population groups within society, with a range of influencing factors including age, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and occupation. We’re all different, and therefore we respond differently to triggering events.
The WHO report also highlights that “not all the psychological and social problems that occur can be described as diseases; the majority are normal reactions to an abnormal situation” – suggesting that a focus on resilience training, managing stress, and additional coping mechanisms could help the vast majority of employees managing this temporary situation.
Unfortunately, there will also be employees who have first-hand experience of COVID-19 – and special consideration should be given to these cases. Employees who have been hospitalised due to coronovarius may require specific support to overcome a potentially traumatic experience, and those who have lost loved ones could need additional support to handle grief in an environment where regular grieving rituals have been legislatively minimised or forbidden.
For many employees, it may be that long-term mental health support will be required to help support them overcome trauma-induced mental health problems and physical manifestations, and employers should be thinking longer term when reviewing or planning their mental wellbeing support.
COVID-19 has caused a shift in caring responsibilities for a huge swathe of the working population – both those responsible for dependent children, and those looking after elderly relatives.
Recent statistics released by the Office of National Statistics showed that there are 4.6 million households in the UK with dependent children under 16, where all parents in the household are working – and half of them have a dependent child under 5.
With schools and nurseries closed for all but keyworker children, thousands of parents across the UK have been plunged into working from home with children present. Anecdotal evidence suggests parents are using a range of time management strategies; some utilising leave (both paid and unpaid), some managing a rotational shift pattern with live-in partners, and some juggling both working and parenting at the same time. Logistically, allowing flexibility or temporarily reduced hours would help these employees balance these conflicting responsibilities. It’s also important for employers not to overlook the impact on mental health – recent research showed that working mothers have 40% higher stress levels than other full-time women
. It’s likely that these triggers will not have disappeared but rather evolved – with numerous other challenges appearing too (managing schoolwork, living in a confined area and balancing work with familial demands).
Those with elderly relatives may also face increased responsibilities; with those over 70 recommended to self-isolate for 12 weeks (in the UK), there may be increasing demands for familial support to run essential errands such as grocery shopping. With some supermarkets imposing shopping restrictions – both online and in store – and varying food shortages on staple goods, it could lead to employees wanting to run errands during traditional working hours – and employer flexibility here could help provide much-needed support.
Inevitably, the temporary lifestyle changes imposed by the government will have an impact on employees’ physical health.
A switch to remote working, closure of gyms and exercise groups, and a restriction on free time has meant that people are changing the way they keep fit. Some benefits offered by businesses – such as discount on gym memberships – won’t be utilised during a lockdown period, but there may be online alternatives which are available. Companies can also provide in-house support to encourage employees to keep active; employee-led initiatives and inspiring content can help drive positive behaviour.
For some employees, working from home might be a regular or everyday occurrence. For others, it might be new; they may be ill-prepared or their living arrangements might make it challenging to comfortably work from home (someone living in a flat-share with no communal areas will have a vastly different experience than someone with a dedicated home office). In order to reduce musculoskeletal complaints, employers should be encouraging ergonomically-friendly solutions, and championing good posture; again, this is an area where online exercise videos could support.
Employers should also consider the impact of a disrupted work day. Employees may gravitate to working the same or longer hours over an extended period time – without a sufficient break in between working days. Tiredness can have a significant detrimental impact on health; it can reduce concentration, and prolonged sleep debt may lead to depression, stress, anxiety and can put you at risk of serious medical conditions such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Encouraging breaks and good sleep health will help keep employees well.
Whatever support companies are considering, employers should react and tailor to their workforces. Using demographic data and employee surveys will help provide insight on just what support is required and valuable. Even in these uncertain times, feedback and data can provide validation for the solution.
For more information or to discuss any of the issues outlined in this article, please get in touch by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on 0344 573 0033.
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