As the COVID-19 crisis hit in March 2020 many initially commented that it didn?t discriminate. Not in recent years has the nation collectively experienced the challenges to mental wellbeing brought about by the current pandemic.
Brendan Street, Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing at Nuffield Health, shares insights on how COVID-19 has impacted the UK workforce.
As the crisis escalated, it became increasingly clear that its impact was not being felt equally across society. Nuffield Health’s recent whitepaper discusses how several societal groups are more at risk of poor mental health and how these inequalities are further exacerbated by COVID-19.
The story so far?
Prior to the government announcing compulsory lockdowns, no one could have predicted a world in which businesses moved en masse, and seemingly overnight, to remote working models.
Despite the unplanned nature of this transition, businesses adapted quickly to the change, with some initial indictors suggesting the transition was, initially at least, more successful than could have previously been anticipated.
?Given the unpredictable path of the pandemic, together with data collected relating to the impact of remote working, many businesses are now considering new ways of working.
Research from Nuffield Health outlines the potential benefits of remote working, in relation to employee stress, wellbeing and productivity. The research also discusses the challenges presented by a remote working model, especially where employees are spending more than 2.5 days a week working away from the office.
Risks of more extensive remote working patterns include deterioration in co-worker relationships and job satisfaction as well as the risk of isolation, overload and burnout.
Indeed, several studies examining the impact of the pandemic have highlighted the immense toll on employee mental health:
- 25 percent of workers find it difficult to deal with the mental challenge of loneliness and isolation from colleagues
- 30 percent of workers report finding it difficult to separate work and home life
- 27 percent find it hard to switch off at the end of the day
The pandemic has impacted on everyone’s mental health to some degree. But research studies, media headlines and insight from community groups suggest that certain groups in society have been harder hit and that existing inequalities have been exacerbated.
These groups include:
- Those living with low resources
- Frontline/key workers
- Those living on low resources
- Working parents
- BAME groups
- LGBTQ+ groups
- Those in education
In this article, I discuss how workplaces can better support some of these groups in more detail, including those living on low resources, millennials and working parents and encourage empowering conversations around mental health so more people access the support they need earlier.
Those living with low resources
Living with low resources, has been described as the “Cause of All Causes of Mental Ill Health?. Studies show the mental health of those living with low resources has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
Further contributing factors include increased financial worries due to redundancy which can cause huge uncertainty, stress and anxiety and make existing mental health problems worse.
Job loss, debt and financial difficulties are also associated with increased risk of mental illness and suicide in the general population.
Other concerns include:
- being furloughed on less pay;
- being unable to work due to additional care responsibilities/home schooling;
- challenging living conditions, and
- expanded living expenses.
?Employers should offer advice on the actions employees can take to help manage difficult financial situations.
This could include financial benefits education and open discussions in virtual workshops. Offering staff the opportunity to follow up on a more personal basis in a one-to-one meeting, or even to watch a webcast in private is another way to increase awareness and signpost available support.
Many businesses offer financially focused employee benefits, such as earned wage access, Income Protection,”Critical Illness and Life Insurance, which provide a financial safety net should workers encounter the unexpected.
Employers can also signpost the options available for those whose financial position is already impacting their mental health. This could be by an employee assistance programme (EAP), debt counselling or a workplace loan scheme.
Ensure that communications are accessible to the entire workforce, especially for employees whose jobs are not desk based.
Working parents at home
COVID-19 has seen huge swathes of the population work from home, often working longer hours than usual.
Mental distress was reported in two-thirds of workers whose working week increased and who were also engaged in higher-than-average active childcare.
A recent study revealed 60 percent of working parents were unable to find alternative childcare following closures. This resulted in parents spending 27 additional hours each week on household chores, childcare, and education comparable to working a second job.
“The needs of working parents can vary, so different types of flexible work arrangements should be welcomed to help staff care for their families.
Flexible arrangements could include the opportunity to work flexible hours around child home-schooling and compressing the work week.
Other support measures include:
- paid sick leave;
- employment protection; and
- monetary transfers like child benefits and health subsidies.
Employers should ensure parents have access to remote psychological support services such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), not only for themselves, but which can be including children.
Even prior the pandemic millennials were facing bigger mental health challenges than their older colleagues, with research showing that young people in the UK have some of the poorest mental wellbeing in the world.
Nuffield Health Research on remote working further highlights that millennials are less likely to meet the ACAS recommendations for remote working, due to them having less experience of self-management and working from home. Difficulties are therefore compounded by separation from usual social networks, channels of communication, guidance, and support mechanisms.
Most worryingly, despite this growing need for support, there is a reluctance by people in this demographic in distress to seek help.
A survey showed, more than one in four young people did not try to access support during the first lockdown because they did not think their problem was serious enough to warrant support.
Nuffield Health research suggests that one of the main barriers to seeking support is the current medical model, ?disorder-led approach to mental health.
“Young people, especially millennials, often feel as though the distress they are experiencing is not severe enough to be considered ?real” or worthy of support.
Discussing mental health at work using non-medicalised language is key to encouraging everyday conversations. Providing employees with emotional literacy training and conversation guides to enable them to not only discuss their own mental health, but to support discussions with colleagues is essential in promoting a healthy workplace.
Our most recent work is aimed at helping businesses to encourage empowering conversations around mental health, so more people access support earlier.
Now presents an opportunity to change the nature and content of our language around mental health and mental fitness to support the entire UK workforce.
Employers might provide convenient online or telephone access to GPs, which millennial employees – as well as many other demographics – might find useful.
CBT sessions delivered via online video conferencing are popular. Likewise, remote delivery of Enhancement and Prevention materials and courses provide a scalable way to provide mental health support for this generation.
Read more: Managing job burnout during a crisis