Employers must act to restore their workforce’s mental wellbeing

To mitigate the psychological health crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, organisations need to take proactive steps now, says Louise Abbs

The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t just been a physical health crisis, it’s also triggered a mental health crisis. Anxiety levels have soared since the lockdown; working parents have suffered stress and exhaustion while juggling work and homeschooling; and many of those who had to fight for their lives in hospital are now at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The number of women seeking help for domestic abuse has increased by 50 per cent and divorces are set to soar, with the strain of living in close proximity causing many relationships to fail.

Many people worried about losing their job and those who couldn’t be with a loved one while they passed away are not only suffering bereavement but may also be traumatised by the experience.

Data released by mental health charity Mind highlights the devastating impact of all this on our mental health: one in five adults (22 per cent) who had no previous experience of mental health problems now say their mental health is now ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’, and two-thirds (65 per cent) of people who had a pre-existing mental health problem say it has become worse during the crisis.

An extra half a million people now urgently need mental health support at a time when already long waiting times have increased further. This means employers now have a vital role to play in restoring the mental health of the workforce in the following ways:

Normalising anxiety

Research from the ONS shows that 37 per cent of people in the UK – equating to 19 million – are now suffering from high anxiety, a general feeling of unease associated with symptoms such as feeling sick to your stomach, rapid breathing, pounding heart, trembling, fatigue, trouble sleeping, panic attacks and headaches.

You can’t think your way out of anxiety, so employers need to reassure people it’s OK to feel anxious at this time and educate people how to recognise and manage the symptoms. Tactics such as group workshops, mindfulness and physical exercise have all been proven to be effective at reducing anxiety levels. Everyone will also benefit from being educated on how to proactively manage their mental health, to boost their resilience and ability to stay healthy under pressure, by finding ways to unwind, creating a support network and focusing on positive things.

Creating a caring culture

Employee benefits, such an employee assistance programme, which can provide access to confidential counselling from as little as the price of a cup of coffee per person a year (depending on the size of the organisation and nature of work), have a key role to play in making people feel cared for, but the culture of the organisation and ability of managers to role-model looking after wellbeing also matters.

Managers must show the caring face of the organisation and humanise the workplace in a way that might have been sadly lacking until now. This isn’t about asking managers to become counsellors or advisers. It is about encouraging managers to help people acknowledge how they’re feeling so they can encourage them to use the support services already in place.

Catching people before they fall

Doctors are now warning that there could be tens of thousands of people at risk of PTSD because of the seriousness of their Covid-19 symptoms. It’s essential to be mindful of the symptoms of trauma, including constantly replaying events, jumpiness or forgetfulness, interrupted sleep, shock, denial, guilt, sadness or numbness, so that if these don’t improve within four weeks, they can be referred to a specialist psychological provider.

With the number of people experiencing domestic abuse also surging, employers should consider implementing the best practice advice in the government’s domestic abuse toolkit for employers. This includes how best to acknowledge, respond to and refer those affected.

Another useful safety net is to train employees to be mental health first aiders, so they can provide support and guidance to those who may be struggling, before mental health issues get out of control.

Louise Abbs is managing director of PAM Wellbeing