Legal

Managing employee mental health post-Covid

6 Sep 2021 By Daniel Stander

Daniel Stander examines how employers can keep up the momentum on wellbeing after the pandemic

It has previously been suggested that one of the legacies of Covid-19 will be a society and culture where people are more comfortable opening up about their mental wellbeing. But new research suggests that, despite feeling less able to cope than they did pre-pandemic, employees are feeling increasingly under pressure to hide their mental health struggles from their colleagues.

In a survey of 2,000 respondents by Lime Insurance, four in 10 said that they felt less resilient since the pandemic struck, while more than half of respondents (51 per cent) said that they felt under pressure to put on a brave face at work. Moreover, only 16 per cent said they felt their wellbeing was very well supported at work, despite 81 per cent wanting their employers to offer help and support with their mental health.

With the government now advocating for office-based employees to return to their workplaces following the easing of Covid-related restrictions, HR teams are tasked with navigating their businesses through a multitude of complex issues. Office returns, the end of the furlough scheme, the potential impacts of long Covid on the workforce, and the embracing of flexible and hybrid working will each present their own challenges that employers will need to address to mitigate the risk of rising mental health issues. There will not be any one-size-fits-all solutions, but, for those currently engaging with the question of how their organisation should look and function going forward, it is important to consider the following:

‘Cave syndrome’

Although the easing of restrictions will be welcomed by many, there are going to be some who are anxious about returning to their workplaces after such long periods at home. Until recently, people were being told that it was unsafe to be around others, to use public transport and to attend the workplace. Re-adjusting to a more ‘normal’ way of life will require time and employers will need to be cognisant of this. 

Possible measures for employers to embrace to alleviate the strain on employees include allowing for a gradual, phased return and thinking about how office layouts can be optimised to give employees space and privacy. 

Support in a hybrid working environment

Given the potential for employees with poor mental health to gain protection as disabled under the Equality Act 2010, employers should ensure that line managers are provided with updated training on how to manage their direct reports in a remote setting, as well as being better equipped to spot signs and symptoms of a wellbeing issue arising or escalating. Effective line management can mean significant savings to an organisation where issues can be identified and headed off at an earlier stage before matters descend into performance or absence issues and of course the cost of replacing staff.

Right to disconnect

Although this is not a new concept, giving employees the ‘right’ to switch off from work has risen up the agenda in recent months. Respondents to the Lime Insurance survey above said that they would like their employers to do better in respecting and enforcing work/life balance. HR can work to build a culture where employees feel more able to take proper breaks and where emails are not sent outside working hours unless absolutely necessary. 

As people start to gradually return to their workplaces, employers should re-double efforts on wellbeing. Mental health is not a ‘nice to have’ and should be viewed as of vital importance to the success of an organisation.  

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

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