Employers must step up mental health support during coronavirus crisis, CIPD says

Research shows managers lack confidence in this area, while People Management survey finds staff anxiety about Covid-19 is HR’s biggest challenge

Employers must act now to prevent mental ill-health among staff both during the coronavirus outbreak, the CIPD has said, releasing figures showing the majority of managers were falling short on this even before the crisis began. 

A poll of 1,018 HR professionals across the UK, conducted between October and mid-November, found only a quarter (25 per cent) of HR professionals believed managers were able to spot the early warning signs of mental ill-health. Just 31 per cent thought managers were confident enough to have sensitive discussions around mental health and signpost staff to help.

In the research, conducted by the CIPD and Simplyhealth, 60 per cent of organisations reported an increase in common mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression among employees over the last year. The CIPD predicted that the pandemic would only exacerbate these conditions for many, saying this was another reason for employers to “step up” their efforts.

Separately, figures from the third coronavirus reader survey conducted by People Management and the CIPD found a growing number of employers were concerned about how to support employees with general coronavirus anxiety.

The latest survey, which polled more than 300 employers, found two-thirds (67 per cent) of respondents cited supporting people’s mental health and wellbeing as their organisation’s main challenge currently. This was four percentage points higher than earlier this month, with this remaining businesses’ largest concern.

Rachel Suff, wellbeing adviser at the CIPD, said the coronavirus outbreak and social distancing have left many employees feeling isolated, fearful for their physical health and concerned about job security or loss of income. This was likely to compound existing stressors people were experiencing as part of their working lives, she warned.

Get more HR and employment law news like this delivered straight to your inbox every day – sign up to People Management’s PM Daily newsletter

Suff said employers and managers needed to be confident and capable of supporting people’s mental wellbeing during this difficult time.

“Employers also need to remember that their duty of care for people’s health and safety carries on no matter where staff are based,” Suff said. “This pandemic presents a real threat to people's mental – as well as physical – health, and employers need to think about both when putting in place plans to protect their workforce.”

The latest People Management and CIPD survey also asked respondents about their biggest challenges in relation to staff working remotely. Seven in 10 (70 per cent) cited ensuring employees’ physical and mental wellbeing.

Nearly two-thirds (65 per cent) pointed to staff’s ability to balance home working and parenting commitments, while a similar number were concerned more generally about keeping employees engaged and motivated.

The survey also asked businesses about their methods for checking how staff were feeling about new working arrangements and the coronavirus situation more generally. Two-thirds (66 per cent) reported relying on line manager feedback, and 56 per cent direct employee feedback. Only 9 per cent had utilised staff surveys so far, and 12 per cent staff forums.

Stephen Bevan, head of HR research development at the Institute of Employment Studies, said the move to remote working had made it even harder for HR and managers to pick up on cues that their colleagues might be struggling. “The fact that people are so distant means that even the most empathetic manager can't really spot signs of staff’s behaviour, disposition or even physical signs of people being in trouble of some kind,” he said. 

Bevan added that two ways employers could support employees were to simply trust them to do their jobs, and offer the flexibility for staff to work around other responsibilities such as childcare. 

“In the current circumstances, I think there are some lessons in getting people to psychologically segment their day where logistically possible, to communicate that to people and be trusted by their employer,” Bevan said. “There’s nothing worse than people thinking they have to be sending emails at 6pm just to show that they’re active online, otherwise people will think they’ve skived off early.” 

To better support staff during and after the crisis, the CIPD recommended employers encourage staff to practice self care such as developing a healthy routine for diet, sleep and relaxation outside of work. Employers should also remind managers about the importance of communicating regularly with their teams and promoting existing wellbeing support.