Over the last few months, the daily lives of ordinary people have been turned upside down. NHS and key workers have had to deal with unprecedented demand, and have risked their own health. Working from home has become normal for many employees. A large part of the workforce continues to be furloughed and this might be the case until the end of October.
As we enter into a ‘new normal’, the ongoing pandemic continues to impact our mental health, whether people are adjusting to lockdown easing, coping with pre-existing mental health problems that have been exacerbated during the pandemic, or dealing with bereavement and grief. And the Prime Minister’s latest announcement giving employers more discretion in asking their employees to return to the office might trigger new anxiety in people. Companies must therefore be particularly careful how they manage the return to the office.
Employers must play a vital role in supporting the mental health of their workforce, by prioritising and promoting a positive wellbeing culture. This factsheet will help you understand how mental health has been impacted, and lay out some guiding principles to enable your business to support employees.
What’s the latest information and insight?
The impact of the coronavirus on people’s mental health has been widely recognised, with research warning that Covid-19 could have a ‘pervasive impact’ on global mental health now and in the future. Mental ill health could be further exacerbated by a financial recession: IFS research suggests that an economic downturn similar to that after the 2008 financial crisis could lead to the number of working age people suffering from poor mental health rising by 500,000.
By having a clear plan and support systems in place, business can step up to play its role in supporting mental health by helping employees navigate this new uncertain world they find themselves in.
Four guiding principles for prioritising employee mental health during the coronavirus pandemic
Understand and recognise the impact of coronavirus on your employees’ mental health
The first step in supporting your employees’ mental health is to understand how they are feeling as well as the factors influencing their mental health response to the pandemic.
Those factors will be incredibly personal to the individual and will include things like: concerns about finance or job security, increased pressure (for example, if your industry is experiencing increased demand), whether they are home schooling children and whether they are part of a vulnerable group or have to take care of a vulnerable relative.
It’s also important to consider whether employees have pre-existing mental health conditions.
Three actions you can take:
- Ask your employees to share their mental health experiences – for example, via a company survey – to gauge the impact it's having
- Work with employee groups to understand the big factors impacting mental health, and identify those you have the agency to change
- Understand how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted different areas of your workforce in different ways. For example, working parents or caregivers and those with pre-existing mental health conditions.
Create a clear plan that is specific to your organisation
Start by focusing on the short term
While having a cohesive approach to supporting your employees’ mental health is vital, with so many unknowns, it’s OK to start with a short-term plan. Look to plan for a three month period, and accept that it’ll need to be flexible and change as our response to the pandemic does.
Ensure your plan is unique to your organisation’s needs...
Ensure you are asking the right questions:
- How many employees are you aware of with pre-existing mental health conditions? Remember, just because someone has a pre-existing mental health problem, it doesn’t mean they are going to struggle – it’s important to ask what people need.
- Do you have mental health champions or mental health first aiders that could form part of your wellbeing response?
- Do you have established peer networks that could get involved?
- How might your different employee groups be affected? Consider the mental health needs of on-site, at-home and furloughed workers, as well as those such as parents and carers. For example, on-site workers need to feel safe at work or this could impact on their mental health – so clear communications from employers about how you will protect them is vital.
- What mental health support do you currently offer employees? For example, Employee Assistance Programmes or medical insurance?
- What external guidance is available to help people deal with their mental health – through the NHS or Mind, for example?
- Do your line managers have any training in mental health awareness?
- Is your organisation prepared to help people deal with grief and bereavement? Losing loved ones will be especially tough for people to cope with in the absence of the formal rituals we use for closure, such as funerals and memorial services.
... but make sure you learn from others too
When it comes to mental health plans, collaboration is more powerful than competition, so connect with other companies to ask about their approach – what has and has not worked? Share your learnings too.
Consider wellbeing in a holistic way
There are a number of factors that might impact mental health and wellbeing, with some businesses thinking about their wellbeing strategy holistically. For example, a CBI member is running a 12-week campaign that goes through different aspects of health, such as the physical, mental, and financial.
Financial stress can be a huge contributor to mental ill health. The Our NHS People website contains information, resources, and guidance for employers around employee financial wellbeing. Any employer can make an account on the website if they wish to do so (but this isn’t necessary to access the resources).
Put your mental health plan in one place
People are being overwhelmed by the amount of information being sent to them, so having it all in one place – from the overall plan through to guidance, FAQs and links to support services – will make it much easier for your workers.
How you communicate is just as important as the plan itself
Make your communications regular, targeted and clear
At a time where people are receiving information that is confusing, overwhelming and uncomfortable – it’s important for employers to step up and provide regular, trusted updates. ACAS has guidance on managing challenging conversations.
These updates work best when they are targeted at the specific needs of different groups. For example, addressing mental health concerns for working parents. Remember to communicate with those on long-term sick and parental leave too.
Use peer networks to help provide support
Look at how you can use virtual peer networks to bring employees together in an informal manner. Even if your employees are furloughed, contact with peers may be an important way for them to remain connected to the organisation (although it is important to respect individual needs and preferences). Businesses are telling us that those more informal ‘water cooler’ conversations can help boost wellbeing and retain a sense of normality.
Encourage people to switch off
Home working especially can contribute to an ‘always on’ culture, so try to refrain from sending messages in people’s downtime, and encourage them to switch off too. If your workforce is predominantly made up of shift workers, encourage individual teams to discuss and agree their own approaches to communication.
Communicate with employees who are returning to the office too
Companies must be careful how they manage the return to the office, which might make employees feel anxious. Making your office COVID-secure and communicating the measures you have taken to your employees will be a big part of managing that return.
Have open discussions around mental health, led from the very top
Discussions on mental health need to be led from the top
Prioritising wellbeing from the top demonstrates its importance, ensures it is a shared priority and encourages others to speak up. There are three main actions senior leaders can take:
- Visibly demonstrate commitment to the organisation’s coronavirus mental health strategy and communicate its value
- Share your own stories and talk about the ways you’re coping – it helps to make mental health a safe topic for employees at every level
- Ask people how they are and then really listen to the response.
Make mental health part of everyday conversations:
Build mental health and wellbeing into 121s, team meetings and regular catch-ups to help people get comfortable talking about it. Embedding good health and wellbeing depends on creating a culture that reinforces positive messages.
Equip line managers to have great mental health conversations
Line managers don’t need to become mental health experts, but they do need the tools to have great conversations about health and wellbeing. There are three main actions business can take to support their line managers:
- Provide line managers with suitable training and ensure they are aware of any support available, for example through private healthcare schemes or an EAP
- Encourage line managers to ask how team members want to be communicated with and how often they should catch up – this will help people to cope better
- Encourage line managers and their teams to create wellbeing action plans – which enable people to identify practical steps to ensure they feel supported when they aren’t feeling great.
Frequently Asked Questions
What can employees do to support their mental health while working from home or self-isolating?
- Develop a routine and structure for the day to help separate work and home
- Identify personal stressors and things which support their wellbeing - these will look different to everyone
- Encourage social networks and interacting with others
- Digital detox where possible: time away from work and creating a space for work to be 'put away'.
How can we support the mental health of workers who remain furloughed?
The government encourages employers to be in contact with their employees when they have been placed on furlough.
- Have a conversation with the person to understand how often they want to be contacted, in what way, and who by. Regular communication can ensure that staff continue to feel like a part of the organisation
- Employers and furloughed employees might also want to explore opportunities such as voluntary work (as long as it is in line with the furlough scheme)
How can we continue to support employees in times of increased budget constraints?
With nearly 70% of businesses running low on cash, and three in four reporting lack of demand, supporting people’s mental health in the face of difficult economic circumstances can feel like a daunting challenge.
- For firms with a limited budget, signposting free apps to staff can be an effective way to take a proactive approach without having to use much resource. For example, the NHS Couch to 5K app is free of charge but a useful tool to help kick-start individuals’ fitness journeys. Free or affordable apps such as Calm and Headspace promote better mental health by providing mindfulness techniques and support with meditation.
- The CBI’s Front of Mind report, in partnership with Bupa and HCA Healthcare, draws on evidence from 350 UK businesses to set some principles for mental health that all firms can follow
- Join our Supporting Mental Health Working Group
- Watch the CBI’s webinar on mental health and wellbeing with Michael Cole Fontayn, Chairman of the Association for Financial Markets in Europe, including how to instil employee confidence during the return to work. You can also watch our webinar with Faye McGuiness from mental health charity Mind on supporting the mental health of staff during the pandemic
Resources to support your business in its mental health response
- Cruse Bereavement Care have collated resources on how to deal with bereavement
- Peppy has launched a healthy minds app to help employers support their people’s mental health, by providing a group chat moderated by a mental health practitioner, 121 chats with a mental health practitioner, and signposting to helpful resources for managing mental health and wellbeing
- There is a wealth of existing guidance from other organisations, for example the Mental Health at Work hub or the Business in the Community network
Resources you can share with employees to help them
- The City Mental Health Alliance have created mental health resources for business, including specific guidance on supporting mental health for furloughed workers as well as managing remote teams in challenging times and supporting colleagues to stay mentally healthy in unusual conditions
- The NHS has provided guidance to support mental wellbeing while staying at home – encouraging people to make practical plans, connect with others and focusing on indoor hobbies
- Mind have provided detailed guidance to support the nation’s mental health, covering advice for staying at home and looking after your mental health as well as more practical support – such as support for work, benefits and housing
- The government has published guidance for the public on the mental health and wellbeing aspects of coronavirus available at GOV.UK