Employers urged to do more as data shows depression has doubled during Covid

19 Aug 2020 By Maggie Baska

Experts call on HR to ‘ramp up’ support and warn of an impending mental health crisis as government schemes are wound down

The number of adults in the UK with depression has doubled during the coronavirus pandemic, official data has shown, prompting calls for businesses to prioritise support to avert a looming mental health crisis. 

One in five (19 per cent) people experienced some form of depression in June this year, almost double the 9.7 per cent with symptoms in the nine months leading up to March, according to a report by the Office for National Statistics (ONS)

The research, which surveyed 3,527 UK adults over a 12-month period, revealed that one in eight (13 per cent) had developed moderate to severe depressive symptoms during the pandemic. 

Of those experiencing some form of depression, a majority (85 per cent) said feeling stressed or envious was most strongly compromising their wellbeing. 

The data showed only 3.5 per cent reported an improvement in their mental health during the pandemic. 

Sophie Corlett, director of external relations at Mind, said there was increasing concern that more people would experience mental ill-health and “fall through the gaps” as emergency measures introduced by the government – including the furlough scheme and enhanced statutory sick pay – were wound down. 

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“We cannot underestimate the impact the pandemic has had on the nation’s mental health – whether that’s bereavement, the devastating loss of life, the impact of lockdown or the recession we are now in,” Corlett said. 

“We know people already struggling with their mental health or with related issues like problems with employment, housing, benefits and debt have been hardest hit by coronavirus, but [the ONS] figures also show how the pandemic has affected people who were previously well and are now experiencing depressive symptoms for the first time.”

Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser at the CIPD, said that a significant stressor were the new work demands and arrangements people were facing as a result of the pandemic. “Working full time from home for a few weeks is a different prospect to doing so indefinitely, and there’s a risk that some could feel isolated emotionally and cut off from the organisation,” she said. “This means many people could be at risk from stress if organisations don’t adequately support people and look after their health and wellbeing.”

Previous research by People Management and the CIPD, which surveyed 300 employers, showed two-thirds (67 per cent) found managing employees’ fear and anxiety their biggest challenge during the pandemic. Meanwhile, seven in 10 (70 per cent) employers highlighted the challenge of ensuring staff were staying well both physically and mentally while working remotely. 

Suff called on employers to “ramp up” their mental health support across a number of areas. “Organisations should encourage a caring and compassionate culture that recognises the complex personal situations some may have, and should be prepared to make temporary adjustments to people’s working arrangement to support people,” she said.   

She added employees should be encouraged to discuss any concerns about their role, workload or how they are feeling with their line managers. “The relationship that line managers have with employees is crucial; managers need to show empathy and feel comfortable having sensitive conversations with people,” Suff said.

Louise Aston, wellbeing director for Business in the Community, told People Management  the ONS research came as no surprise. "We are in a mental health pandemic," she said, advising employers to proactively tackle the "systemic root causes" of poor mental wellbeing rather than being reactive.

"It's not enough just to introduce tactical kinds of initiatives like EAP or mental health first aid – it's much more fundamental," she said. "Covid-19 has acted as a powerful catalyst, which has actually transformed the way we work, and almost overnight has elevated mental health on a parity with physical health."

Aston also highlighted the importance of job design. “Job design and job quality are absolutely key as part of the solution because good work actually enhances physical and mental health," she said.

In previous research by Canada Life, almost half (46 per cent) of Brits carrying out their jobs remotely during lockdown reported feeling more pressure to be ‘present’ for their employer and colleagues, with more than a third (35 per cent) saying they had continued to work despite feeling unwell. 

Of those who had worked through illness, 40 per cent said this was because they didn’t feel they were sick enough to warrant a day off. However, more than a quarter (26 per cent) also reported workload as a reason for not taking a day off, and 16 per cent cited fear of redundancy.

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