Legal

Supporting mental health during lockdown

8 Jul 2020 By Richard Isham

Richard Isham explains how employers can best safeguard the psychological wellbeing of their staff while they work from home

In 1999, a Health and Safety Executive survey found that 20 per cent of workers said that they were very or extremely stressed at work. More than 20 years later, a similar survey by Business in the Community (BITC) and Marsh Benefits found this figure had nearly doubled to 39 per cent.

This situation is aggravated by working from home because remote working raises issues of loneliness; the fear of missing out on career opportunities; and lack of routine.

Home working is undoubtedly facilitated by good technology, but having your home as your office inevitably blurs the boundaries between work and home life, making switching off much more difficult. Your laptop and phone are constantly sending you notifications, seducing you back into the world of work.

The Covid-19 crisis has stimulated many businesses – especially traditionally office-based businesses – to convert into virtual offices almost overnight. Inevitably, the ‘success’ of this transformation will cause businesses to question the need for the expensive office space. This means that home working is likely to be here to stay for many.

Moving to the virtual, home working business model is not a simple win-win situation. Employers have to be conscious of the stress that comes with it for their workers, as referred to above and also their obligations, imposed on them since the introduction of the Acas guidance, Promoting positive mental health in the workplace. The guidance makes five recommendations for employers to follow to evidence the promotion of mental health:

  • develop an action plan to change attitudes;
  • create a mental health policy and set out its values;
  • train managers and ensure they champion awareness and fight stigma;
  • tackle work-related causes of mental ill health;
  • educate the workforce.

Employers that fail to implement the recommendations expose themselves to significant risks:

  • economic: mental health-related absences costs businesses £33-£42bn per year according to the Stephenson/Farmer Review; 
  • litigation: awards for disability discrimination are uncapped; and 
  • reputational: they may experience criticism on social media and/or Glassdoor.

Employers can fulfil their obligations by encouraging an open dialogue around mental health. This can be assisted by having mental health champions and training some workers to become mental health first aiders. Such workers are trained to become the first point of contact for those who may be suffering mental health issues. They are trained to recognise the early warning signs and symptoms for a range of mental health conditions and on how to hold supportive conversations.

However, it undoubtedly remains a significant challenge to manage and fulfil an employer's obligations in relation to the mental health of its workforce when that workforce is working remotely. Accordingly, additional training will be needed so that leaders and managers understand the necessity to focus on work-related relationships, not just tasks and outputs – learning to treat the workforce as human ‘beings’, not just human ‘doings’. Recent surveys have helped to identify some key traits that are required in order to be a good manager of remote workers:

  • checking in frequently and giving frequent feedback;
  • having face-to-face and voice-to-voice contact;
  • good and clear communication skills;
  • being available, no matter what the time zone may be;
  • good technical skills to facilitate communication and to be able to help colleagues working remotely;
  • being comfortable with prioritising the relationship with the worker – being able to take a genuine interest in the worker and their personal situation during one to ones, so as to build a personal bond and, in team calls, always taking the time for the team to have the equivalent of a water cooler chat.

For the economic benefits of having a flexible, non-office based workforce to be fully realised, employers have to invest in training so as to equip their leaders and managers with the skills required to fulfil both their legal obligations and to ensure that their remote workers remain fully engaged in the business. For workers operating remotely from the office, this can only be achieved if they trust the business, feel a personal connection with it and believe in a shared purpose.

Richard Isham is a partner at Wedlake Bell

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