COVID-19 advice

The information in this blog is correct as at 13 July 2020. For the most up-to-date Employment Law and Health & Safety advice to support your organisation through the COVID-19 pandemic, visit our Coronavirus Advice Hub, which is updated daily and contains a variety of free guidance notes, letter templates, checklists, risk assessments and more.

According to CIPD, early reports suggest that the measures taken to control COVID-19, such as lockdown and social distancing, are having a negative impact on the mental health and overall wellbeing of employees.

While physical distancing and avoiding in-person meetings will help to reduce the risk of transmission, it can also impede employees’ access to social interaction, encouragement and support, resulting in feelings of isolation and stress.

Employers must therefore consider what can be done to support employees’ mental health as lockdown ends. Factors to think about include the impact of social restrictions, concerns about contracting the virus on returning to their workplace, and anxieties around job security. Employees are also working longer or more irregular hours and perhaps having to juggle work and homeschooling, all of which may contribute to a poor work-life balance.

Whether it’s financial worries, fear of a second wave of the virus, or the loss of a loved one, the indirect effects of the pandemic on general mental health are of increasing concern, and it is essential that returning employees have the right support.

What should be done?

Under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, every employer has a general duty to “ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety at work of all his employees”. This duty extends to the management of work-related stress, anxiety and depression.

Employers must treat mental health like any other workplace hazard and, in this regard, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 requires employers to assess the risk of stress and other conditions arising from work activities and take all reasonable steps to control that risk.

With this in mind, you will need to introduce suitable and sufficient measures within the workplace to support those experiencing poor mental health as a result of COVID-19. Due to the complex and individual nature of wellbeing and mental health, there is no single solution; measures will range from addressing safety concerns about returning to work, helping employees regain an effective work-life balance, right through to support for severe mental health conditions.

Consider the following:

  • Re-induct those returning to the workplace after lockdown. This will help employees to feel connected and engaged and is an opportunity to cover any workplace health and safety changes made in line with the government’s COVID-19 guidance.
  • Brief managers on the potential mental health consequences of COVID-19 and their specific roles/responsibilities in supporting staff.
  • Communicate regularly on mental health and wellbeing support and make sure to include messaging about mental health and wellbeing in wider communication about your response to the pandemic.
  • Provide mental health awareness-raising activities. These can take various forms, including promoting national events, workshops or awareness campaigns. This will help to build a culture where it is acceptable to talk about and seek support for poor mental health.

What to watch out for

Signs and symptoms of declining mental health include:

  • Working long hours;
  • Increased sickness absence or lateness;
  • Mood changes;
  • Distraction, indecision or confusion;
  • Irritability, anger or aggression;
  • Uncharacteristic performance;
  • Over-reaction to issues; and/or
  • Disruptive behaviour.

While such signals don’t necessarily mean that someone is experiencing poor mental health, they should prompt a wellbeing talk with the employee. This can be done in person if the employee is back at work, or via a phone call or virtual meeting if they are struggling at home. A good starting point is to simply ask how they are, then listen, show understanding, and acknowledge the uncertainty and stress COVID-19 is causing everyone.

Rather than waiting for signs or for employees to express concerns, be proactive. Managers should encourage employees to seek support for any mental health issues they may have, and you should make sure employees know how to access support and who to talk to.

Managers should be trained on mental health conditions, including how to spot signs and symptoms, how to a respond to disclosure, and how to provide ongoing support.

Other considerations

Other potential interventions include:

  • Providing employees with a copy of your risk assessment covering issues such as workplace hygiene and maintaining social distancing. Refer to the government’s guidance for the measures you should have in place. This should help to demonstrate your commitment to employees’ health and safety and instil confidence around a return to work.
  • Finding ways to keep in contact while social distancing or working from home – use your intranet to share important updates on physical and mental health and wellness, pay, time off, and other benefits and support, and promote the use of video chat software to check in with colleagues throughout the day.
  • Offering work-life balance support via one-to-one coaching, guidance or training.
  • Adapting flexible working policies to increase opportunities to change or reduce hours.

The role of managers

Managers play an essential role in executing your COVID-19 mental health and wellbeing measures. Where employees are experiencing poor mental health, managers can take specific action by:

  • Referring them to an occupational health professional;
  • Keeping in regular contact with the affected employee and updating them on key business changes – ideally via a ‘face to face’ virtual meeting;
  • Making it clear that they should not rush back to work until ready to do so;
  • Discussing the support needed to help them make a successful return to work;
  • Making sure there is ongoing dialogue and regular contact following their return; and
  • Reviewing performance objectives and workload and making adjustments where necessary.

Remember, work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounts for 44% of all work-related ill health and 54% of working days lost. While these are pre-COVID statistics, the mental health implications of the pandemic are clear, with some employees reporting a negative impact on overall wellbeing from as early as week two of lockdown. As such, a proactive response is essential to prevent short-term stress from having long-lasting effects, and can reduce the risk of high staff turnover, elevated sickness absence and presenteeism at a time when the stability of your team is vital to your post-lockdown success.

Need help with your post-lockdown people and safety challenges?

To access our full range of return-to-work resources, including template letters and forms, guidance on managing absences and refusals to work, and a variety of risk assessments, policies and checklists, visit our free Coronavirus Advice Hub or call 0345 226 8393 for specialist support.

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