Supporting mental health over the return to work: five key steps for employers to take

An estimated 60 per cent of the UK’s adult population has spent much of the last 15 months working from home. As businesses begin to welcome staff back to the workplace over the summer, careful thought will be needed to ensure that adequate support is provided for employees’ mental health needs.

Mind, the mental health charity, has previously stated that COVID-19 is as much a mental health emergency as a physical health emergency.  This is be borne out by the data. According to the National Office for Statistics, around 1 in 5 (21%) of adults experienced some form of depression in early 2021. This is more than double the rate observed before the pandemic (10%). Mind also found that more than half of UK adults (60%) and over two thirds of young people (68%) said their mental health deteriorated during lockdown.

For many, the return to work will be a relief; the end to long periods of isolation and the chance to meet and chat with colleagues face-to-face rather than digitally. For others there will be fears around travel or spending time in close contact with larger groups of people.  Employers also need to be mindful that during lockdown some staff may have experienced mental health issues for the first-time. As a result, many employees may be fearful of returning or reluctant to admit this as they head back to the workplace.

Our data shows high levels of concern among UK workers that their employer’s support for mental health, as we come out of the crisis, will be inadequate. According to our nationwide survey of UK workers,  only 36 per cent[1] of staff believe that their employer will provide adequate mental health support post lockdown.

For manual workers this falls to a shocking 16%. This contrasts significantly with workers at middle management or above; over 46 per cent of workers in this group felt that support for this would be adequate.

There is also a big disparity between the public and private sectors. Only 29 per cent agree that mental health support would be adequate in the private sector, compared to a more positive 45 per cent of public sector employees.

Women were also less likely to feel that they would receive sufficient mental health support than men (31% vs 39% for men).

More and more businesses are recognising that taking care of staff mental health and wellbeing is important. To help with the gradual return to work, here are five important steps that companies can take to show that these issues are taken seriously. Implementing such initiatives will convey that the organisation recognises the importance of employee wellbeing.

1. Mental health hotlines

In its guidance for the return to work, the Government rightly advises businesses to consider providing access to mental health advice or hotlines for staff as they welcome employees back. Details of how calls can be made should be clearly communicated. Hotline numbers should be publicised on posters, website, and company intranet (if used).

2. Engage with staff

Businesses should also proactively engage with staff about how they perceive Covid is being managed in the workplace. This will help staff feel they can share concerns. It also allows management to demonstrate their commitment to supporting mental health and wellbeing by providing support where necessary.

3. Supporting the need to isolate

The so-called ‘pingdemic’ may also be having an impact on mental health, as staff could be fearful about the impact on their job if required to isolate. This could be of particular concern where there are repeated occurrences or for those who have just returned from furlough and may be feeling vulnerable. Clearly good policies are needed to reassure staff that they will be supported in taking all the necessary steps that the test and trace system requires. These should be publicised and accessible to all employees.

4. Spotting the signs

Our survey showed that manual workers in particular fear that they will be unsupported if they have any mental health concerns. Many manual workers have been operating on the frontline for months, working under significant pressure, which may make them vulnerable to stress or mental health conditions. Businesses need to be mindful of this and take steps to ensure that managers are trained to spot any signs of stress or mental health issues.

5. Raising awareness of mental health

As a nation we are often reluctant to speak of mental health. Companies should therefore consider initiatives that raise awareness of mental health, such as in-house workshops or webinars; communication campaigns to highlight company policies (possibly piggy backing on a national awareness day), and appointing wellbeing champions for staff to consult about support that may be available.  Not only does this help demonstrate the company’s commitment to mental health and wellbeing, such initiatives will also help create a culture where it is acceptable to talk about mental health and ask for support.

[1] Research conducted for GoodCorporation by Opinium Research from 10-20th July 2020 of 2001 working adults in the UK. Sample designed to be representative of the UK working population. Research conducted by email survey using Opinium’s omnibus panel. Population for this research is the UK working population estimated by the UK government to be circa 28,000,000 in employment. The overall analysis has 95% confidence level and +/-2% confidence interval. Some of the sub-data has a wider confidence interval and this is noted in footnotes where applicable