Mitigating Covid’s unequal impact on the workforce’s mental health

Some groups have been worse affected by the pandemic than others, says Brendan Street, so it’s important employers don’t provide a ‘one size fits all’ solution

When the Covid crisis hit in March 2020, many claimed the virus didn’t discriminate but, as the pandemic has swept over the nation, it’s clear the impact is being felt differently. Nuffield Health’s recent white paper, for example, discusses how several societal groups are at greater risk of experiencing mental ill-health in the wake of Covid.

However, the situation marks an opportunity to bring about permanent positive change. So how can businesses make sure their mental health support offering is relevant and accessible to address the challenges now and in the future?

Who is most at risk? 

Aside from the obvious physical risks posed by the pandemic, the resulting changes to our lives have seen a widespread negative impact on the nation’s mental health. Constant negative news alerts, reduced social interaction and financial worries are among the key drivers of heightened anxiety and low mood. However, this impact isn’t being felt equally by everyone. 

There has been an increase in reported mental health issues among those working from home, especially parents. The stressful balance of full-time work – while also acting as teacher and childminder – is seeing working parents endure longer days and minimal downtime. 

Other groups being disproportionately affected include those living with low resources, ethnic minority groups, men and millennials. The former widely struggle with financial worries, living on relatively low incomes pre-pandemic and now bearing the additional burden of furlough pay cuts and fears around long-term job security.

Existing inequalities have made the mental health of ethnic minority groups worse during the pandemic, according to research from the British Medical Journal, which found that quarantine constraints made access and engagement with support more difficult. Significant Covid infection rates within ethnic minority groups also exacerbate both physical and mental health difficulties, which we know are inextricably linked.

Men and millennials are also likely to feel the mental impact of financial worries, as well as their own stresses, like struggling with loneliness and isolation and worrying about the health of their parents. Nearly 40 per cent of men reported a negative effect on their mental health during the first wave of the pandemic, rising to more than 50 per cent among millennials.

Those experiencing these feelings of low mood and anxiety often struggle to sleep, and suffer from permanent low moods and even physical symptoms like fatigue, headaches and nausea.

The role of employers

With much of the stress and anxiety surrounding the pandemic stemming from financial worries and the loneliness of remote working, employers have a significant role to play in supporting workers.

The first priority for businesses and managers should be to communicate the support available. Emotional wellbeing support can be seamlessly adapted to meet the needs of remote workers, and it is up to employers to signpost them to the most appropriate support. This may include providing speedy access to psychological support via mental health specialists. Evidence-based treatment such as remote cognitive behavioural therapy allows individuals to speak with a psychotherapist who can provide them with effective tools to understand and manage a range of difficulties. 

It’s also important to encourage regular communication between teams. This should encourage non-work related informal video and instant messaging chats to nurture relationships between colleagues. It is also vital that managers maintain regular dialogue with their team.

Importantly, there needs to be a shift in language when discussing mental health in the workplace. Conversations are often based on a medicalised idea of mental health, focusing on illness, diagnosis and conditions. This fuels the outdated idea that anyone experiencing emotional distress is ‘unwell’ and needs to be ‘treated’, which inhibits supportive conversations taking place. Instead, language should reflect the fact we all have mental health that can change at any time depending on life’s circumstances. Mental health is a lot more than the absence of mental ill-health. One way to communicate this is by showing mental health as a continuum. At one end is ‘maximum mental fitness’, and the other ‘minimum mental fitness’. We are all somewhere along this continuum and our position changes day to day, week to week, month to month.

Brendan Street is professional head of emotional wellbeing at Nuffield Health