The Impact of Coronavirus on the Nation’s Mental Health

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Employers are understandably focused on the current coronavirus pandemic, however this week the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has published a survey which has highlighted a significant increase in individuals experiencing depression.

In this article we focus on the practical steps employers can take to manage mental health in the workplace.

For helpful tips and guidance on managing sickness absence in the workplace, please see our previous articles:

What are mental health problems?

MIND the Mental Health Charity sets out examples of the many types of mental health problems, for example:

  • Depression (including post-natal depression, seasonal affective disorder)
  • Anxiety problems (including panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder)
  • Phobias
  • Schizophrenia
  • Eating problems (such as binge eating, bulimia, anorexia)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Bipolar disorder (previously known as manic depression)
  • Personality disorders

Why should employers be concerned about the mental health of their workforce?

Many mental illnesses will fall under the definition of a disability in accordance with The Equality Act, which employers have a legal obligation to abide by.

In addition to this, as many as 70 million workdays are lost to sickness absence resulting from mental health problems, costing the UK economy £2.4 billion annually. Given we are now officially in a recession, what employers should be asking themselves is ‘can I afford not to be concerned about mental health at work?’.

What can employers do?

  1. Meetings/open door policy

It’s important to keep good lines of communication open, particularly when supporting employees who may have mental health problems. This is even more important with many employees working remotely during the pandemic.

You can only act on what you know about, so good communication gives an opportunity for employees to inform their employer if they feel under pressure, whether that be in their home lives or in the workplace.

It also gives the employer the opportunity to assess workloads and ensure that employees are not being unfairly overloaded.

  1. Be observant

Employers are not expected to medically assess their staff or be an expert in mental health but they do have a duty of care.

If certain warning signs are becoming apparent such as, employees staying late frequently, appearing not to take time away from the workstation for breaks, looking tired, being irritable or generally appearing distracted- don’t ignore it; check in on them.

  1. Culture

Talking about mental health is challenging, mainly because sadly there is still considerable stigma surrounding mental health.

Consider for a moment the following phrases which may creep into the workplace:

  • ‘man up’
  • ‘pull yourself together’
  • ‘get a grip’

Employees will not feel able to open up in work environments where there is a poor attitude towards mental health. In fact, poor attitudes and the use of language like the above could leave an employer exposed to claims of discrimination- for which the potential compensatory awards are uncapped.

Therefore, it’s vital that employers commit to preventing any form of discrimination in the workplace and that includes discrimination in relation to mental health.

  1. Annual leave

The purpose of annual leave is to ensure that employees have time away from work to properly rest and recuperate. Rested employees are more productive and tens to have a better work life balance.

It is vital that employers regularly remind their employees that their leave must be taken within the holiday year and ensure their workplaces are appropriately resourced so that employees are not continually having requests for leave turned down or feel discouraged from asking for annual leave.

Remember- payment in lieu of annual leave is unlawful unless it is payment for untaken holidays on the termination of employment.

  1. Reasonable adjustments

As stated above, employers have a legal obligation under the Equality Act to implement reasonable adjustments for those with disabilities.

For example, an employee may be placed on ‘light duties’ if their work involves heavy lifting whilst they are recovering from surgery but what kind of adjustments could be made for someone with mental health problems?

Examples can include:

  • Adjustments to working hours e.g., later start times, earlier finishes, additional break times
  • A phased return to work. For example, if an employee has been absent for several weeks due to an episode of depression they may benefit from a gradual return to their normal working hours and/or duties.
  • Working from home
  1. Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP)

Many employers are investing in providing access to EAP’s for their employees. At the moment this may seem like a cost that just can’t be justified but they really are worth their weight in gold.

They can provide confidential advice and support on a wide range of areas such as:

  • Family- carers, child custody, relationship problems
  • Health- both physical and mental health, many offer counselling services to assist with combating symptoms of depression and anxiety, bereavement, stress
  • Financial matters
  • Addiction

Contact our Experts at Avensure for information on Zest- Avensure’s EAP programme.

To conclude, there are a lot of ways an employer can be proactive in supporting employees with mental health problems.

It’s time to think outside the box and see if your working practices could be evolved because a proactive approach to mental health is not only good practice, it is also good business and our experts are always on hand to provide bespoke guidance and advice on this and all employment law/HR matters. Please quote your Client Account Number on all correspondence and telephone calls. 24-hour client advice line: 0800 151 2935