Employers are subject to extensive legal obligations in respect of the welfare of their staff. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 makes employers responsible, so far as is reasonably practicable, for their employees' wellbeing, health and safety. This means both mental and physical health.
There is no doubt that the Coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on our mental health as a nation. Recent research published by The Prince's Trust revealed that the mental health of one in four people aged 16-25 has worsened during the pandemic, and these worries are not limited to the young.
Many people have found themselves feeling lonely or anxious in these difficult times. In a study conducted by mental health charity Mind of 16,000-plus people, more than one in five young people and adults with no previous issues said they experienced poor or very poor mental health during lockdown.
Being furloughed or flexibly furloughed, can be stressful, particularly when individuals are concerned about job security or worried about financial hardship. Crucially though, employees retain their employment rights while on furlough, meaning the employer is still responsible for their wellbeing, health and safety.
Therefore, businesses should remain in contact with their furloughed staff, and this is recommended by Acas. For many furloughed workers, feelings of anxiety and isolation can be reduced if there is frequent communication with their employer.
The preferred method and frequency of contact during furlough should be agreed with each staff and a discussion about any specific measures they would benefit from. Employers should make regular calls to furloughed staff to check on their health and wellbeing, update them on developments and discuss their likely return.
Employers should also remind their staff that voluntary work and certain types of training are permitted while furloughed, both of which may alleviate loneliness and anxiety.
There are many ways in which organisations can relieve loneliness and anxiety experienced by their employees, whether furloughed or not. Here are some examples.
- Encourage an open culture where employees feel they can talk about their mental health.
- Introduce a mental health at work policy to ensure staff know what support is available, and how mental health in the workplace is managed and provide emergency contacts.
- Develop awareness of mental health among employees – identify what it is, and what mental ill-health means.
- Adopt a mental health first aid scheme with trained members of staff who can identify the signs of ill-health and who can provide support and raise awareness.
- Promote the support available such as employee assistance helplines, training, counselling and any other benefits.
- Encourage staff to maintain a routine – planning their time and taking their holidays.
- Ensure employees are not working excessive hours and have a healthy work-life balance.
- Provide training covering topics such as managing stress, mindfulness and personal resilience, as well as training for managers and senior staff on supporting employees.
- Promote the use of technology for both work and socialising and encourage staff to maintain informal discussions while working remotely.
- Being an approachable and sympathetic manager and supervisor is particularly important for junior members of staff and make the time to have regular catch ups.
Engaging with employees on what they will find helpful is essential both for the wellbeing of the individual and the business, because if staff have not felt supported during the pandemic they may look for another job in the future. Being an employer known to look after mental health proactively and to support employees will be a feather in any business’s cap, helping to attract prospective workers in the future.
There are excellent resources available to assist employers in this task. Mind has created an online coronavirus workplace hub with advice on supporting staff and the Mental Health Foundation's website also has guidance about looking after mental health while working during coronavirus.
Melodie Thompson is a solicitor in the employment team at Blake Morgan