Promoting better mental health amid Covid

Mental health has – quite rightly – been a growing area of consideration for employers over recent years. The impact of poor mental health on a workplace can be significant, with work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounting for 44% of work-related ill health and 54% of working days lost, according to figures from the HSE for 2018/19.

Throw in a global health pandemic, which early indications suggest is having a significant impact on the stress and anxiety levels of individuals, and the picture for mental health is even more bleak.

So what can employers do to help their employees – both in recognising the signs of mental health decline and taking steps to alleviate it – amid Covid-19?

Recognise the signs

Early intervention and the opportunity to take early action can often prevent escalation and mental health worsening. However, not everyone will feel comfortable in coming forward if they are struggling, and many individuals may not realise or be able to acknowledge they have a problem themselves. The way poor mental health manifests can differ from person to person, but typical signs include increased sickness absence or lateness, mood changes, withdrawal, over-reaction to problems and other uncharacteristic behaviour.

Unfortunately, many of these signs can be more difficult to spot when employees are working remotely. Those employers that have a good understanding of their people in the first place will be more alert to shifts in mood or behaviour.

If they are concerned, managers should initially have a conversation with the employee – a phone call or online meeting to check in with the individual.  Should further support be required, the appropriate steps should be taken, such as discussion with HR regarding available options or a referral to Occupational Health.

Communication

Poor communication can be a cause of anxiety for employees who, in the absence of being kept well-informed, may worry about various aspects of their performance or ongoing job security.

In a world of social distancing and self-isolation, face to face communication has become more limited. However, technology does allow for the next best thing in the form of video calls and team meetings, alongside phone calls – which can often lead to far more open and helpful communications than emails or short form messaging.

Employees should also be encouraged to communicate with each other on both work-related matters and socially. Many people are missing the day-to-day interaction with their colleagues, so by allowing space and time for employees to engage with each other more informally, part of the feeling of isolation may be avoided.

Keep morale up

The pandemic has affected workers in different ways and depending on the individual circumstances, the particular concerns will vary. For employees that are still working, but are perhaps having to juggle childcare or home-schooling responsibilities in addition, working patterns may have had to change, resulting in less of a work-life balance.

For those that have either lost their jobs due to the pandemic or have been on long-term furlough, there are also potential mental health implications as a result of loss of routine and/or self-esteem.

In addition, many people will have suffered bereavement over the course of the last 12 months, perhaps without the opportunity to say goodbye to their loved ones or have a proper funeral.

The ongoing fear of catching the virus may be affecting others, as might job security and wider financial concerns.

With the range of concerns being so wide, there is not a one-size-fits-all response. However, by showing that you take mental health seriously, making a concerted effort to ‘check in’ with staff and taking steps to promote wellbeing, employers can go some way to combating the detrimental impact of poor mental health on their workers.