We know that Covid-19 is causing massive physical health challenges across the world, and the incredible efforts of healthcare professionals in the UK and beyond are rightly being championed. For businesses, dealing with a slew of workers needing to self-isolate or shield due to coronavirus is a huge battle.
However, it’s the long-lasting cracks to the mental resolve of employees that requires really serious employer intervention. If employers don’t act now, then these cracks could become fault lines that tear across their workforce and cause enduring problems. The impact of enforced isolation on individuals shouldn’t be underestimated. In fact, the side effects are shockingly similar to what we see in sufferers of PTSD. A study looking at hospital employees in Beijing who had been exposed to SARS in 2003 found that having been quarantined as a predictor of post-traumatic stress symptoms.
Add to the mix that even before the Coronavirus pandemic, 40% of employees reported that they were uncomfortable calling in sick for a reason relating to their mental health. In the same breath, we know that many employees go through some sort of mental health episode each year – such are the demands and challenges of modern-day life. Clearly, therefore, there is a large gap between employees and employers when it comes to mental health transparency.
Let’s look at how the two different groups, employees and employers, are affected, and what can be done to maintain mental wellbeing during this challenging time.
Work is such a big part of our daily lives, and work colleagues are often some of our best friends. We count on being close to our colleagues; sharing our weekend stories with them; sharing our problems and excitements. This is all so much harder now. Add in the challenges of extra health anxiety, loneliness, the distance between loved ones, financial issues, furlough uncertainty, etc. and you don’t need to be a genius to know that employee mental health will be under increased pressure.
Humans are also very social beings in general; ‘lockdown’ has caused new physical barriers to be created between employees and employee-friends, and The Economist reported last week that isolation will affect the mental health of even those who appear to be in less danger from the virus. 67% of Britons between the ages of 18 and 34 said they were finding it hard to remain upbeat, compared with 54% of those between the ages of 55 and 75.
Being furloughed, losing a contract, or in the worst case, your job doesn’t just mean a loss of income, but also identity, routine, and much of your social network.
Lockdown makes it very hard for managers to pick up on the signals and physical cues from their employees which would normally be saying to them “we might need to step in and give X some extra help and support at this time”. In the same way that an office worker misses their colleagues, their manager is going to be hard-pressed to keep tabs on their wellbeing when they can’t see them. A five-minute chat over a coffee to make sure that everything’s OK, a clear-the-air meeting after a complex meeting, or even just sharing a drink after work; all these little ways that management can check in on how their employees are doing.
As good as services like Zoom and Teams are when it comes to replacing face-to-face, the everyday rhythms of professional interaction are hard to replicate. Even when it comes to things like sick leave, how does a manager handle this in the new world of lockdown? Being ill no longer means staying at home; people are still essentially in their workspace while unwell, and it can be all too tempting for both parties to just do that extra half hour’s work, or dial into a meeting because it’s just very easy to do that. Employers may be asking too much of their workforce, whether due to inattention or the fact that they’re attempting to avoid further business continuity damage.
But a short-term shoring up of defenses won’t mean much if, when normality returns, your workforce’s mental health has been hollowed out and needs a lot more support to get the business back up to speed. So, what should we be doing?
- Make data your friend: managers need to find replacements for what was previously taken for granted. A cup of coffee with your line report isn’t going to be viable – but a regular daily zoom catch-up is, or at least a chat on the phone. To help supplement this virtual face-time, managers should be using employee data (any absences, sickness, visits to wellbeing resources) to understand how they’re feeling and how they might best help.
- Encourage employees to take downtime…and make it fun. Team drinks, quizzes, etc. are always good for morale – bring them into the virtual world! Everyone will be working incredibly hard at this point in time, so it’s vital to give people an outlet to unwind in the same way that they would in normal circumstances.
- Invest – it might seem counterintuitive when businesses everywhere are tightening the purse strings, but a well-placed investment now in technology to support your workforce’s mental health, whether that’s building in virtual GP appointments to your HR system or making wellbeing resources more easily accessible, will create long-term value, show staff they are properly valued, and help protect vulnerable employees from the worst impacts on their mental health.
- Communicate – so much is up in the air at the moment, that communications can seem out of date very quickly. An employer needs to be letting workers know the position of the business, the official government advice and how it applies to them, and what is planned for different developments in the pandemic.
Covid-19 has the potential to turn mental health cracks into a chasm, but as you can see there are steps that we can all take to avoid this. Now is the time to invest in meaningful health initiatives for your employees, and of course, helping your employees will help your business in the long run too.
See how Edays empowers people to work happier and healthier with professional, accessible mental health and wellbeing resources.
Harry is Head of Customer Success here at edays, helping organisations to get the very best out of their edays system. His experience in SaaS and HR brings valuable insight into how organisations can better manage their people, processes and productivity.