It’s still hard to absorb the exceptional situation that the country – indeed the world – is facing in the context of COVID-19. As the infection and death rate from the pandemic continues its sharp upwards trajectory in the UK, the impact on individuals and society is becoming increasingly obvious. The heavy and immediate toll the virus is taking in terms of human life is the most devastating outcome to witness. But the economy and workplace are also experiencing a direct impact. The Government has stepped in with an unprecedented package of support for business and individuals but it remains to be seen if this will be enough to stem the longer-term loss to people’s jobs and livelihoods.
It’s also becoming clear that society could look and feel quite different in the future, with far reaching implications for the workplace and people's health even after the crisis is over. We can't yet predict what the scale of job loss will be, or the state of the economy, or how the virus will have personally affected each individual. What we can predict is that everyone will have been through a challenging experience. Some may have lost loved ones, or have lost part of their household income, and most will have had to deal with fear and anxiety to differing degrees. Most will have experienced lockdown and isolation.
Growing concern for people’s mental health
It is because of the known impact of a pandemic on people’s mental health that the World Health Organization (WHO) and other health experts are already warning employers to take steps to protect people’s mental health, as well as their physical health. As the WHO says: ‘this time of crisis is generating stress throughout the population’ and people who are affected by the virus ‘deserve our support, compassion and kindness.’ The UK Government has recently announced new advice and funding to support people struggling with their mental health during the coronavirus outbreak, including online support.
We know that people professionals are likely to be at the forefront in helping to guide your organisation’s response to the pandemic and are under enormous pressure to translate stringent public health requirements like ‘social distancing’ to protect employees from the spread of infection. This understandably must feel like the immediate concern, but there’s already strong evidence showing that urgent attention is also needed to protect people’s mental health. Research by the University of Sheffield and Ulster University observed a spike in depression and anxiety after the PM’s lockdown announcement, for example. Almost four in 10 (38%) participants reported significant depression and 36% reported significant anxiety on 24 March, more than double that of levels pre-announcement.
To understand how people professionals have been adapting their response to the coronavirus outbreak, People Management and the CIPD have been polling employers over the last few weeks. People’s health and well-being has consistently emerged as a key priority, including in terms of their psychological well-being. When we most recently surveyed the profession and asked HR to tell us the five main challenges (out of more than a dozen) they face with staff working remotely, ‘Ensuring staff are staying well both physically and mentally’ came out on top – far above concerns like managing performance properly, or if people can do their jobs effectively or be productive. This is reassuring, as the CIPD has consistently urged employers to place people’s health and broader well-being at the heart of their organisation’s operational response to the pandemic.
What support is needed, now and after the pandemic?
In March, the CIPD in partnership with Simplyhealth, launched its twentieth survey report on health and well-being. There are some key findings around mental health that are highly relevant to how employers should be reviewing their mental health support for employees now and after the pandemic.
First, the findings reinforce what we already know - that the main risks to people’s health at work are psychological. They also find that three-fifths (60%) of organisations reported an increase in common mental health conditions (such as anxiety and depression) among employees over the last year. The pandemic will exacerbate these conditions for many and is another reason for employers to step up their efforts. Encouragingly, the findings show that more employers are stepping up their efforts to foster mentally healthy workplaces. However, more organisations need to adopt a systematic approach to preventing psychological risk and provide effective support pathways for people when needed.
Crucially, the research confirms too few organisations are equipping line managers with the knowledge and skills to support people’s mental health. Managers need to be supported so that they in turn can support their team members, many of whom will be feeling anxious and worried, and coping with new work demands on them. Managers should not be expected to be health experts but they do need to have the confidence to have sensitive conversations and direct employees to appropriate sources of help if needed.
If they haven’t done so already, now is the time for organisations to develop a strong framework of support for people's mental health, which is almost certain to have worsened over this period and won't automatically return to pre-crisis levels after the pandemic. Looking ahead, every employer should be compassionate and understand that most people will need a period of readjustment when working life returns to some semblance of normality. They should ensure that managers are able to have supportive conversations with staff about their return to a more typical work pattern, including how they feel in terms of their mental well-being. Employers need to be prepared to make changes for people to support their health where needed, whether temporary or permanent. They should be as flexible as possible to ensure that employees can make an effective return to the workplace where people have been working from home. We don’t know exactly when that is, but the more mental health support that’s in place for people now, the more prepared everyone will be to look to the future.
To recognise the hard work and commitment of people professionals during the pandemic we’ve recently launched a new campaign together with People Management. We’re asking you to use #HRtogether on social media to share stories of teams, individuals and independent practitioners who are working hard to put people first in these challenging times.
Further resources to support good mental well-being
World Health Organization: Mental Health and Psychological Considerations during the COVID-19 Outbreak
Mind guidance on Coronavirus and your well-being
CIPD and Mind People Managers’ Guide to Mental Health
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