Frequent and rapid changes in workplaces around the world to control the coronavirus pandemic have the potential to harm the mental wellbeing of millions of people. Prior to the pandemic, mental health was a significant workplace issue. For example, in Great Britain, for the year ending March 2020, work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 51% of all work-related ill health and 55% of all days lost due to work-related ill-health.
There will be significant increases in mental health issues due to the coronavirus pandemic (for example see this article); however, there are steps that employers can take to promote mental wellbeing in the workplace. This article outlines the steps that organisations can take to create a mentally healthy workplace, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic.
As more people are working remotely in response to the pandemic, the term “workplace” used in this article includes home working.
What are employer obligations?
In many countries, employers have a legal duty to ensure the safety and health of workers. For example, in the UK, the Health & Safety at Work etc Act 1974 requires employers to secure the health (including mental health), safety and welfare of employees whilst at work and, amongst other things, provide a safe place of work; ensure safe systems of work, and provide information and training. In Australia, organisations have obligations to do what is reasonably practicable to eliminate or minimise work-related risks to health and safety. This would include any psychological risks created by COVID-19.
Besides health and safety legislation, employers should also consider equality and disability discrimination legislation. Many countries have laws against treating people less fairly, or not giving them opportunities, because they have a disability (which would include mental illness). Any disclosures about an employee’s personal information would also be subject to privacy legislation.
Note that these laws may only set minimum standards, and you can achieve greater improvements across a range of measures if you take additional actions.
A recent study by the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US$1 trillion each year in lost productivity. There are clear business benefits to managing mental wellbeing, besides the moral and legal issues.
COVID-19 impacts on mental wellbeing at work
Many aspects of work can lead to mental health issues, but the coronavirus (and COVID-19, the disease that it causes) have created additional impacts on mental wellbeing in the workplace. Bear in mind that people with existing mental illnesses, unrelated to COVID-19, may experience additional challenges associated with the pandemic and the measures put in place to manage the risks.
The response to the COVID-19 pandemic could have many impacts in the workplace, such as:
- Lack of clarity about roles or responsibilities.
- Frequent changes to roles, routines, procedures or management expectations.
- Working longer hours, extra shifts, overtime.
- Changes to work location (e.g. home-working can undermine work-life balance)
- Not being able to take annual leave.
- An increased workload or work pressures.
- Taking on additional duties or responsibilities with insufficient training.
- Increased threat of workplace discrimination, aggression or violence from customers, clients or patients.
- Fear of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace.
- Concerns about exposure to COVID-19 whilst commuting by public transport.
- Concerns about access to masks, visors, gloves and other protective equipment.
- Uncertainty about employment.
- Financial worries due to unstable or reduced employment.
- Extended absence due to furlough leave.
- Rapid decision making required, with less time for preparation.
- Logistical issues in obtaining materials, parts or professional services.
- Making difficult choices in healthcare settings.
- Serious illness or death of work colleagues.
- Witnessing the serious illness or death of patients in the healthcare sector.
Besides the effects of coronavirus in the workplace itself, staff may be experiencing other impacts in their domestic lives which may contribute to reduced mental wellbeing, such as:
- Social isolation from family and friends.
- An increase in domestic violence.
- Pressures of caring for dependent or sick relatives.
- Balancing childcare, home-schooling and employment.
- Illness or bereavement of family and friends.
When people experience poor mental wellbeing, their ability to perform at their best is compromised. Many of the impacts of COVID-19 listed above could be described as Performance Influencing Factors, which can weaken human performance in the workplace. Addressing these Factors will improve human reliability; and this will be more important in high-risk or safety-critical industries. The impacts may range from absenteeism, presenteeism (i.e. continuing to attend work, but not performing well) and poor productivity, to near-misses and serious accidents.
If staff are faced with fear, ignorance and discrimination (perhaps unconscious or unintentional) when discussing mental health issues, then they are less likely to seek support. In addition, if staff feel that there may be repercussions for raising concerns about how the organisation is responding to the coronavirus, they will be less likely to speak up.
Leaders should understand that a culture enabling staff to speak up is not just about encouraging workers to raise concerns: it is about listening to what they are saying, acting on the information and providing feedback.
“A psychologically safe culture provides a compassionate, inclusive, and trusting environment – one that shares safety insights and empowers people who use services and staff with the skills, confidence, and mechanisms to improve safety. This culture means we will hear more, learn more, and act more to improve care.
All leaders of health and care services can support this by encouraging a supportive culture where people are able to speak up about risks and adverse outcomes, without fear of blame or repercussions”.Care Quality Commission, 23 April 2020 (the independent regulator of health and social care in England)
Helping people to do their best work
This section provides advice for supporting employees during the coronavirus pandemic. Like any other workplace issue, mental wellbeing relies to a large extent on good leadership, including being effective role models. It is important to emphasise that the vast majority of people who experience a mental health problem continue to work, or return to work successfully.
- Organisations need to manage the risks to mental wellbeing, in the same way that they manage the physical risks relating to COVID-19. This involves identifying the risks, assessing them and eliminating or minimising the risks.
- Identify staff or groups of staff who may be more vulnerable to mental health issues.
- Include those who usually work remotely and those working from home as a result of pandemic restrictions.
- Involve staff in the risk assessment process, and consult with them on the measures you intend to take to manage coronavirus risks.
- Provide clear communications on the measures taken to address the risks from coronavirus to help alleviate anxiety (e.g. see guidance below on working safely during coronavirus, from the UK Government).
- Although there may be an increase in mental health issues as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, you should address mental health issues regardless of their cause.
Communication and consultation
- Talk openly about mental wellbeing, and create a culture that supports this.
- Include reference to mental wellbeing in wider communications, rather than only talking about mental wellbeing in isolation from normal business.
- In medium to large organisations, you may find it helpful to create an intranet site, linking to all your coronavirus materials. Having a single source of truth is key.
- Provide a coronavirus focal point, or champions, who can answer concerns.
- Reinforce COVID-19 information obtained from reliable sources, to help counteract misinformation that may be circulating on social media.
- Communicate regularly with employees about your response to the pandemic and actions to be taken by staff. Provide line managers with the information they need to share with their teams.
- Consult with employees about your pandemic response, and enable employees to provide feedback on your plans.
- Reach out to those staff who are working remotely – ensure that they are included.
- As much as possible, allow flexibility in work arrangements, so that staff can manage their commute to work around coronavirus restrictions or concerns; and so that staff can manage other responsibilities impacted by the pandemic, such as child care or looking after family.
- Adapt your flexible working policies to enable quicker decisions.
- Where possible, enable staff to take leave or breaks from work so that they can recharge.
- If you are considering making changes to ways of working, or redesigning the workplace as a result of the pandemic, use this opportunity to ‘design-in’ a mentally healthy approach to work.
- Create an environment that encourages and supports staff to seek help with mental health concerns.
- Consider what reasonable adjustments you should make for employees who have wellbeing issues, such as changes to working hours, work location, or their duties.
Mental wellbeing resources
- Consider introducing an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) if you do not already have one.
- Ensure that existing mental wellbeing services can cope with increased demand.
Training and guidance
- Provide guidance to everyone on mental health, and when/how to seek support.
- Clarify the role of leaders, managers and supervisors in supporting mental wellbeing.
- Enable line managers and supervisors to have conversations about mental wellbeing. See the RUOK resources below.
- Support all staff to identify the warning signs that colleagues are not coping.
- Consider repeating company inductions for staff absent for long periods due to COVID-19 restrictions.
- Ensure that meals provided in the workplace encourage healthy eating.
- Where it is safe to do so, encourage exercise that complies with local pandemic restrictions.
- Provide guidance on exercise, healthy eating, alcohol and other drugs, smoking, sleep and work-life balance.
- Where staff are working from home, provide guidance on a safe workplace. In particular, note that laptops are not designed for long-term use without a separate screen, keyboard and mouse.
Acknowledge and recognise
- Acknowledge that this is an uncertain time, with many changes, and that this can be stressful for all employees.
- Celebrate any new ways of working that have been successful and acknowledge the contribution of team members.
- Recognise what has worked well in your pandemic response: share and learn lessons.
Risk assessment: A brief guide to controlling risks in the workplace. Published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), August 2014. To control the risks in your workplace, you need to think about what might cause harm to people (including physical and mental harm) and decide whether you are taking reasonable steps to prevent that harm. This leaflet provides guidance on this process of ‘risk assessment’.
Are you OK? (RUOK?) Provides tips on how to have a conversation with someone who may be struggling with life. RUOK? is equipping Australians with the skills and confidence to support others who may be struggling with life’s challenges. Find out more at http://www.ruok.org.au
How to support your staff during COVID-19 and Workplace wellbeing, Published by the Black Dog Institute, dedicated to understanding, preventing and treating mental health challenges.
Home working and staying healthy. An infographic produced by the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors.
Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19). This advice is provided by UK Government, although similar advice may be available in other countries. It provides a useful summary of the types of measures you should put in place to keep people safe in the workplace. Taking such measures, and communicating them clearly, will help to alleviate workforce concerns and support mental wellbeing in the workplace.
Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain, 2020. Published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), November 2020. Over recent years the rate of self-reported work-related stress, anxiety or depression has increased with the latest year 2019/20 significantly higher than the previous year.
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