Covid has pushed mental health to a tipping point

Working from home for long periods can seriously damage your state of mind, so employers must up their game on wellbeing, says Daniel Stander

As we negotiate the gloomy winter months in the midst of a global pandemic, many businesses are grappling with the consequences of rising levels of remote working and increasingly disparate workforces. With that situation likely to continue for another six months or more, it has become clear that the mental health and wellbeing of employees has reached a tipping point. 

A recent international study led by Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in Spain found that more than two in five of those surveyed in the UK felt down, depressed or hopeless about the future because of the Covid-19 crisis – putting the nation’s mental health at risk. It is thought that at least 10 million people in the UK will need some form of mental health assistance as a result of the pandemic.

Against that backdrop, employers need to prepare for what is coming their way. They must acquire the skills and tools to be able to spot the early signs and symptoms of a mental health issue developing, or of an existing condition worsening, so they can provide support and early intervention to their employees. 

What to look out for

An individual who is experiencing a mental health condition may well be unwilling to share that information with their employer. They may even lack the necessary insight to realise that they are developing, or experiencing a worsening of, a mental health issue. So employers need to keep an empathetic eye open for potential concerns. Warning signs to watch out for include:

  • The employee is regularly late or fails to attend scheduled calls and meetings
  • The employee very rarely or never has their video on for Zoom/Teams calls
  • Irritability, anger etc
  • Tone of emails changing – more negative than usual, or less co-operative
  • Absenteeism, and also presenteeism
  • Signs of alcohol and/or other drug misuse

How to prepare

Line managers have a significant role to play as they are on the frontline of communication between employees and their employers. For managers to be able to effectively communicate with their direct reports, organisations need to ensure they are trained and equipped to better spot early warning signs and symptoms of mental ill-health and to lean into difficult and sensitive conversations. Training line managers in mental health first aid would be beneficial. 

Managers are recommended to have regular check-ins and create space for conversation about the demands of work and wellbeing. It’s obviously not as easy to tell how someone is coping in a virtual setting as it is in a physical workplace. For example, a Zoom call will not show someone’s facial expressions or demeanour as easily as would a face-to-face encounter. So a line manager might dedicate some time at the beginning of a conversation to ask how someone is feeling and if there are any particular things they are enjoying or finding difficult. Making time for wellbeing questions can help set an inclusive tone and create opportunities for employees to feel able to talk more openly. 

There should be discussion around an employee’s specific requirements, and what the business can do to help. Do they have everything they need to work from home? Managers should be encouraged to hold conversations around ‘Zoom fatigue’ as watching yourself on screen multiple times a day can be difficult, and where individuals experience body image issues it may increase the likelihood of escalation into something more serious.

Employers should also ensure they are signposting the internal and external support available, and participate in national or global mental health campaigns to help drive forward a more inclusive and open culture. This can demonstrate to employees that the organisation takes their mental health seriously, that they will be treated with empathy and that they can express any concerns without fear of stigma.

Daniel Stander is an employment lawyer and certified mental health first aider at Vedder Price